Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sidney Bechet & Albert Nicholas with Jelly Roll Morton * September 14, 1939 * Bluebird * NYC

Oh, Didn't He Ramble
High Society
I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say
Winin' Boy Blues

Stanley De Paris, trumpet
Claude Jones, trombone, speech
Albert Nicholas, clarinet
Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone
Happy Cauldwell, tenor saxophone
Jelly Roll Morton,  piano
Laurence Lucie, guitar
Wellman Braud, bass
Zutty Singleton, drums

Sidney Bechet plus Jelly Roll Morton equals a winning equation, no matter how you calculate it, and no matter how much tension there may have been in the studio at the time. These four tracks from September 14, 1939 serve as a quick proof. Opening up with a quote from "Flee as a Bird" for a solemn preamble, then the mock-solemn intonation...

Ashes to ashes, 
dust to dust,
if the women don't get ya
the liquor must...

...the band bursts into "Oh Didn't He Ramble", confidently swinging with a unanimous groove, each voice knowing exactly where to place himself. Bechet's soprano is comfortable, diving and singing, Stanley De Paris's trumpet well balanced (though apparently he and Bechet were not happy to find each other on the same date), and Albert Nicholas played the right supporting role along with the rest of the band before they break off for a dirge fade out.

The version of "High Society" they cut that day is of interest mostly for the rarity of hearing both Bechet (on soprano) and Albert Nicholas (on clarinet) play the "test solo." I'll let others come to their own conclusions as to who won this duel, but I think Albert delivers it more confidently and cleanly. His swagger for the last choruses of the tune seem to indicate pride in the accomplishment, and I can't help but wonder what Bechet thought of the resulting disc (it obviously didn't hurt his relationship with Nicholas, who he was to record with again, with great results).

The soprano soloing on "I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say" and "Winin' Boy Blues" are vintage Bechet and we are left, once again, wondering what would have happened if the association between Morton and the great soloist could have continued longer. But it wasn't to happen. Bechet had begun an engagement in Fonda, in upstate New York along the Mohawk River, and wasn't to make the return to New York City for the next session (Chilton, 123).

Just as so many of Jelly Roll's recordings sound like vignettes, so Bechet's time in the recording studio with him was just another vignette in the life of a great soloist. He would have one more recording session in 1939 as a sideman with The Haitian Orchestra, then turn his sites to leading his own band again. Perhaps the frustrations in the studio during 1939 made him realize it was time to take matters into his own hands as a leader, but whatever the impetus, 1940 would be a banner year for Bechet's legacy, and this date with Jelly Roll just a harbinger of things to come.

Further Reading:

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

Zammarchi, Fabrice. "Sidney Bechet". Notes to Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters, 1931-1953. Universal Music Classics & Jazz, France, 2011.

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