Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Sidney Bechet with Tommy Ladnier & His Orchestra * November 28, 1938 * New York City * Bluebird Records

Really The Blues
When You and I Were Young, Maggie
Weary Blues

Tommy Ladnier, trumpet
Sidney Bechet, soprano sax & clarinet
Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet & tenor sax
Cliff Jackson, piano
Teddy Bunn, guitar
Elmer James, bass
Manzie Johnson, drums

Just a few weeks after his recording debut as a bandleader, Sidney Bechet returned to the studio with his old friend, Louisiana born trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, to cut some sides for RCA Bluebird label.

According to John Chilton (pg 119) this band was hand picked by Hughes PanassiĆ© , the French impressario and critic, who wanted to record top notch American jazz musicians. He hunted down Tommy Ladnier, who was then gigging halfway up the Hudson River in Newburgh, New York. Sidney Bechet had to be given permission to record with the group by Irving Mills, and only on the condition he wouldn't be billed as the leader. The resulting records were worth the humility, as they are some of the finest trad jazz sides ever cut.  

The enthusiasm is there right from the beginning of "Ja-Da." Cliff Jackson's left hand is strong hinting at the boogie woogie craze about to blow, and the band seems comfortable and happy to be together throughout the first choruses. Bechet embellishes the head on soprano saxophone, but takes his solo chorus on clarinet. There is an important lesson here for historians and others who would try to understand Bechet's musical mind, and a potential misconception to correct. I can't remember where I  first read the rumor that Sidney Bechet had abandoned clarinet for the soprano saxophone rather early on, and that he took the clarinet out in later life only because trumpet players like Wild Bill Davison or Bunk Johnson didn't think the soprano appropriate for a traditional New Orleans style front line. I'm not sure about Bunk or Wild Bill's opinions, but whatever they were, and however Bechet might have focused on soprano in the later years of his career, there is a tremendous amount of clarinet and soprano doubling that he does all throughout the '20s, '30s and '40s. Working with trumpet players as diverse as Charlie Shavers, Tommy Ladnier, Louis Armstrong, Mugsy Spanier, and even as a bandleader himself without a trumpet, Bechet routinely recorded clarinet numbers or switched off within the same tune. So for a significant part of his career, the clarinet remained a nearly equal voice with soprano sax, independent of the band in question. Because of that, I think it's probably safe to say the appearance of clarinet on any sides was most likely a decision made by Bechet himself rather than anyone else. Besides, does anyone think the psychology of Sidney Bechet was typically acquiescent to the demands of the trumpet players he worked with? He wasn't known for being obsequious.  

To get back to the recordings, though, "Really the Blues" is a classic blues drag written by Mezz Mezzrow, the feisty clarinetist whose later autobiography (bearing the same name of the tune) was to make an early case against commercialism and big band era arrangements while forcefully arguing in favor of black musicians and bands. On the head of this tune, as the two clarinetists are playing together, it's Mezz who takes the lead line, but when the solos come, we hear Bechet's soprano sax tell the story, delivering vintage soul, the band murmuring assents throughout. The tune itself is excellent, and as one of the first collaborations between Mezz and Bechet, it is important historically.

"When You and I Were Young, Maggie" is a light, toe tapping number featuring Ladnier's trumpet lead, a competent chorus by Mezzrow on tenor, and some ebullient clarinet work by Bechet to round out the cut.

The last track from this session, "Weary Blues" is one of the best known in Bechet's clarinet catalog. From the outset, Sidney's musical voice is dominant throughout, with Mezzrow shadowing in harmony, and Ladnier holding the mellow line as usual. Bechet's clarinet solo opens with growling zest, then gets to wailing with expertly controlled pitch bends--each idea unfolding naturally. The whole session had the relaxed, joyous feel of musicians who understood each other and wanted to work together.  

Stylistically, though one could glean this from any number of recordings by Bechet prior to this, these are excellent examples of Bechet's unique soloing style, which was so much more than variations on a theme. His use of rhythm, meter, playing over the bar, linking his phrases organically rather than through pattern repetition, tend to be underappreciated, generally speaking, by many in the jazz education field. The music, so far beyond conventional analysis, isn't easily taught because it was so connected to Bechet's individual soul. But if our goal is lyricism and originality, if a player wants to learn how to please and surprise an audience simultaneously and consistently throughout a solo performance, recordings like these will always be a template and guide.

Further reading:

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

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