Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sidney Bechet with Noble Sissle 1931-1938

After the brilliance of Sidney Bechet's playing on the recordings with the Clarence Williams Blue 5, his releases with Noble Sissle and His Orchestra in 1931 are a disappointment. Relegated mostly to section playing on baritone sax, there is little to hear beyond the occasional eight or twelve bar solo during competent (but decent) commercial dance arrangements.

Despite this, the increasing public demand for big bands must have made the stability of such gigs attractive, and Bechet returned to the studio with Noble Sissle and His International Orchestra in 1934. There's nothing bad about the arrangements; the band sounds good enough, especially when compared to similar outfits from the early '30s, but Bechet was a bad fit in this sort of music, and for the most part seems disinterested even in the brief solo passages he's given. An artist like Bechet was just never meant to be used as filler between a vocalist and an arrangement. If he was a basketball player, he'd be described as a "volume shooter" or one "needing the ball in his hands." Musically he was a point guard, rather than a center. On this set, even his more inspired playing on "Polka Dot Rag" seems out of place. This didn't stop him from continuing, however, fully into the Swing Era, and it didn't stop Sissle from featuring him on numbers. 

Considering the great success of Benny Goodman after 1935, it is somewhat surprising to hear Bechet still on soprano sax for his solos on tunes such as 1936's "You Can't Live in Harlem." With all of the band's forces at work, the soprano has difficulty distinguishing itself timbrally, and however good Bechet's solo, he doesn't soar the way Benny could in an eight bar break, or how he himself could in a small ensemble context. If nothing else, recordings like these can help us recognize the comparative brilliance of Goodman in similar orchestral circumstances, demonstrating how difficult it is to musically succeed in them. The one occasion Bechet seems properly used comes on their final orchestral recording with him on "Dear Old Southland" where he's given a bravura introduction and multiple choruses. Working within an arrangement that fits his playing better, we're given us a tantalizing glimpse of what could of been, had his talents been better showcased in this large ensemble setting. 

Perhaps inspired by the success of combos such as the Goodman Quartet, by 1937 Noble Sissle seems to have realized small group work would be worth pursuing with Bechet, and the results were far more interesting. Of the six sides that were recorded by "Noble Sissle's Swingsters" and "Sidney "Pops" Bechet with Noble Sissles Swingsters" in 1937 and '38, five were written or co-written by Bechet, and several of them are important examples of Bechet's work as a player and composer. "Okey Doke" and "Characteristic Blues" are chock full of clarinet blues techniques and, on the latter, even a High Society 'test solo' quote, rounded off with a glissando. Sidney seems far more relaxed and in his element, able to stretch and give fuller range to his musical thought. Likewise, "Viper Mad", "Blackstick", and "When the Sun Sets Down South (Southern Sunset)" are good examples of his work from this era.    
So what are we to make of the Noble Sissle era? We can be grateful that the bandleader kept Bechet employed and active in music, documented on recordings, and that he eventually decided to record to his great soloist's strengths. While the lion's share of the recordings with Sissle aren't representative of Bechet's importance or brilliance, there are few, especially from the last sessions, which no student of Bechet would want to miss.

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