Saturday, 29 December 2007

Favourite Things (1)

A customer and friend suggested I should write about some of the records closest to my heart, and I'm happy to oblige. So this is the first of an occasional series; it's not in any way meant to be a 'best of' listing nor an 'essential records'- these are simply performances I would not want to be without.

Sidney Bechet: The Bechet/ Spanier Big Four

I started to listen to jazz during the British trad boom in the '60s, and much of my musical education came from listening to Peter Clayton's BBC radio jazz programme. I soon graduated to bebop & beyond (and Charles Fox) but I think it must have been on the radio that I first heard the New Orleans clarinet & soprano saxophone player Sidney Bechet.

Bechet's style was direct and imperious, and I found it thrilling; the wide, flaring vibrato that many thought excessive seemed to me to give his music an almost operatic drama; he would often try to dominate the ensemble, wresting the lead from the trumpeter, and he usually succeeded, though Wild Bill Davison faced him down on the Blue Notes they made together in the '40s.

In general he did not get on well with trumpet players; his relationship with Louis Armstrong was particularly difficult, and though the records they made together in 1923 under Clarence Williams' name are wonderful, and would be more wonderful still save for the presence of Eva Taylor, their 1940 reunion is a real disappointment. And there's a great story in John Chilton's Bechet biography concerning an Armstrong concert where Bechet was also booked to play. Bechet did not turn up, pleading illness, but was later seen jamming in a club. Armstrong's mob-connected manager sent him a note suggesting that in future he should stay out of smoky dives for the sake of his health!

Listening to the recordings Bechet and Bunk Johnson made together for Blue Note, I get the impression that Bechet held himself back, playing only clarinet rather than the more aggressive soprano sax, knowing that Bunk was scarcely playing at full strength. But the Bechet/Spanier sessions, recorded just before the reunion with Armstrong in 1940, are a rare example of Bechet choosing to cooperate with, rather than struggle against a trumpeter- or in this case cornet-player.

There are 10 sides, including 2 alternate takes, mostly around 4 minutes each; they were recorded for HRS, a pioneering independent jazz label- read the HRS story here, and issued on 12" 78s. The page also gives a link to Dan Morgenstern's excellent notes on the Bechet sessions, though he is kinder to the rather pedestrian guitar and bass work of Carmen Mastren and Wellman Braud than I would be. But it's the interplay between Spanier's forthright but relaxed cornet lead, open and muted, and Bechet's complementary sax and clarinet lines which is important, and even if Bechet had - like many other jazz improvisers- some set phrases he tended to repeat, the intensity of his playing makes them appear newly-minted. And here for once Bechet works with the lead instrument, not dominating or deferring. Listen to Sweet Sue- it opens with solo breaks, then a beautifully balanced ensemble. Bechet solos on soprano with Spanier playing quietly behind, then returns the complement during Spanier's solo. He then switches to clarinet playing chalumeau behind the guitar solo. More ensemble with Bechet still on clarinet, then back to the breaks and out. A remarkable variety of textures for a quartet, and great timeless jazz.

I first came across these sides on an Ember lp- A Tribute to Sidney Bechet, which had room for all 10 sides, but omitted One Hour and the 2 alternates in favour of 2 tracks from another HRS session featuring Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown & Barney Bigard on leave from Duke's band. This strange decision is made worse by the claim in Bix Curtis' sleevenotes that 'this is the 1st time all the tracks have been issued on one album in this country'. The sides have been issued countless times on lp and cd, and are easy to find.

And they are proof, if such were needed, that jazz soprano playing did not begin with Coltrane or Steve Lacy.

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