Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Sidney Bechet & Mugsy Spanier Big Four * March 28, 1940

The Sidney Bechet/Mugsy Spanier Big Four

Sweet Lorraine
Lazy River 
China Boy
Four or Five Times
That's A Plenty
Squeeze Me
Sweet Sue
If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)

Sidney Bechet * clarinet, soprano sax
Mugsy Spanier * trumpet
Carmen Mastren * guitar
Wellman Braud * bass

In one of those remarkable moments of cross pollination often experienced by musicians, but rarely captured at the precise moment of brilliance in the recording studio, European Gypsy Jazz once had a direct impact upon one of jazz history's founding fathers. The date was March 28, 1940, the idea Stephen Smith's: to pair Bechet and Spanier with a gypsy rhythm section (bass and guitar without drums) and see what happened when they were given the opportunity to swing a la Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France (Chilton, 126). The result was some of the most compelling recordings of any era, and certainly among the finest of Bechet's stellar career.

For a clarinetist, one of the great advantages of Gypsy Jazz is the lower overall volume of the group. Because there are no drums or piano, it's easier for the clarinet to project clearly, without forcing, in any register of the instrument, at any dynamic level. Bechet takes advantage of this, on both clarinet and soprano sax, switching back and forth sometimes in the same tune. On "That's A Plenty" for example, he lays down what is certainly one of the finest clarinet solos on the tune, then picks up his sax and gives a definitive saxophonic interpretation.

One of the myths surrounding Bechet was that he more or less abandoned the clarinet unless it was demanded by a trumpet player for a more "legitimate" revivalist purpose. Among other things, these remarkable recordings demonstrate that Bechet used clarinet and saxophone according to his vocal and timbral needs, and that the clarinet wasn't exactly supplanted by the soprano sax. When he wants low chalumeau underlining, for instance, he doesn't hesitate to use the clarinet on "Lazy River." The tunes are dominated by saxophone, but nowhere else in Bechet's catalogue is it more clear that he chose based upon expressive needs of each situation.

The titles I've listed above are, so far as I can tell, the only tunes recorded by the Bechet-Spanier Big Four. The link, however, has a slightly different list, including "Jazz Me Blues" and "Panama". For those wishing to have a more comprehensive view of Bechet's American recording career, I highly recommend picking up Universal Music Classics & Jazz France's 14 CD set: Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters 1931-1953. The reason I linked above to the other album is simply that the 14 disc box seems to be, sadly, out of print, and only available for several hundred dollars at present on Amazon. I hope it is reissued soon.  

Work Cited:

Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz, Oxford University Press, NY, 1987.