Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sidney Bechet and the Port of Harlem Seven * June 8, 1939 * Blue Note Records * NYC

Blues for Tommy Ladnier
Pounding Heart Blues

Frankie Newton, trumpet
J. C.  Higgenbotham, trombone
Sidney Bechet, soprano sax & clarinet
Meade Lux Lewis, piano
Teddy Bunn, guitar
Johnny Williams, bass
Sid Catlett, drums

On June 4, 1939, Sidney Bechet's collaborator Tommy Ladnier died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 39. Like Bechet, Ladnier was a Louisiana native, against the playing of "commercial" music, known to leave better paying gigs to play the music he loved, and was attracted to the more colorblind European scene. The French critic and jazz impressario, Hugues Panassi√©, when on a mission to record real jazz in the United States, made a point of hunting him down in Newburgh, New York to arrange a recording session with Sidney Bechet the year before. Four days after Ladnier's death, Bechet went into the studio and cut the very first of the Blue Note records which have become such a significant part of his legacy. The Port of Harlem Seven would only have this one recording session together, but it was to be meaningful.

The first tune cut on the session was, appropriately, "Blues for Tommy Ladnier." Frankie Newton's trumpet is mellow and balanced, his solo reflectively sympathetic without becoming sentimental. Bechet too, offers his eulogy, with each band member commenting in turn before bursting into an out chorus. It's then that Newton finally allows some high notes to sound and Bechet's soprano shouts back in concurrence. The feeling isn't so much of a dirge, but of a warm, heartfelt glimpse into their appreciation of the man who had just left them.

So much has been written about Bechet's recording of "Summertime" that there is little to add. It's impossible to praise this moment in jazz history too much. Here is Bechet at zenith, his five heartbreaking choruses taking us deeper and deeper into a southern sunset, and probing the themes associated with the song: birth, death, resurrection, suffering, redemption. It's one of a handful of the most important recordings of the twentieth century, a meditation that unites thought, feeling, meaning, and soul as one.

The last of that day's recorded triptych was "Pounding Heart Blues", a traditional tune perhaps hinting, too, at Ladnier's death. The mood is solemn, respectful, reflective, bringing to a close this important moment in recorded history.

Tommy Ladnier playing was so soulful, he was nicknamed "The Praying Cornet" during his lifetime. On this session, Bechet would leave us one of his most heartfelt performances, bookended with emotionally solemn, yet warm hearted remembrances.

The Port of Harlem Seven were never to record under that name again, but they made their permanent mark on jazz history that day.

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