Monday, February 6, 2017

November 6, 1938 * Sidney Bechet's First Recording Session as a Bandleader

What a Dream
Hold Tight
Jungle Drums
Chant in the Night

Sidney Bechet, soprano sax & clarinet
Ernie Caceres, baritone sax
Dave Bowman,  piano
Leonard Ware, guitar
Henry Turner, bass
Zutty Singleton, drums
Eddie Robinson & Willie Spottswood, vocals

November 6, 1938, New York City

At the spry age of 41, Sidney Bechet finally had the opportunity to record as a band leader. It had been a long six years since his last collaborative session with Tommy Ladnier and their New Orleans Feetwarmers--a session which produced several classic sides. This one would be different in many ways.

Eschewing the standard instrumentation (which is, anyhow, not so standard as some jazz histories would have us believe), the somewhat misleadingly named Sidney Bechet and His Orchestra was actually a sextet consisting of Bechet on clarinet and soprano sax, Ernie Caceres on baritone sax, Dave Bowman on piano, Leonard Ware on guitar, Henry Turner on bass, Zutty Singleton on drums, and a pair of vocalists (Eddie Robinson and Willie Spottswood, 'The Two Fishmongers') featured on "Hold Tight."

The band recorded four tunes that day, all of them originals. Three of them, "What a Dream", "Chant in the Night" and "Jungle Drums", were composed by Bechet. The vocal number "Hold Tight" was composed by Robinson, Spottswood, Ware, Jerry Brandow, and Lenny Kent.

In his biography of Sidney Bechet, John Chilton suggests this session, while bold, is one of Bechet's weaker one, suffering from lack of rehearsal and less than stellar song material (pg 111-112). I couldn't disagree more, and wish this band hand recorded twenty more sides of the same quality. While Caceres isn't balanced, volume-wise in the recording with Bechet (which might just have been an honest difference between the bari player and the muscular sound of Bechet, accurately captured) the timbre and counterpoint the two create is exciting, intriguing, and unique. Chilton wanted a more standard type of climax to the tunes, and perhaps wishes for more melodic content on a number like "Jungle Drums", but here, perhaps, we have the difference between brass criticism and woodwind writing (Chilton himself, who passed away last year, was a trumpet player). A careful review of combo jazz tunes by clarinetists reveals a predisposition for motivic, linear melodies, repetitious in an almost  minimalist fashion. "Seven Come Eleven", "AC/DC Current", "Benny's Bugle" by Benny Goodman; "When the Quail Come Back to San Quentin", "Summit Ridge Drive", "Dr. Livingston, I Presume" by Artie Shaw; and "Jungle Drums" by Sidney Bechet are all cut from a similar cloth.  It's perhaps not a coincidence that John Adams, one of the more revered minimalist composers of the last forty years, was a clarinetist.

That aside "What a Dream" is a beautiful tune, and Bechet's soprano soloing matches it. His clarinet on "Hold Tight" is vintage, excellent, and you can't go wrong with his playing on the other tunes. As with so many of Bechet's early projects (including the first incarnation of The New Orleans Feetwarmers and the Clarence Williams Blue 5), we are left simultaneously wishing we had more, and grateful for what he left us.

Further reading:

Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. John Chilton, OUP, NY (1987)

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