SIDNEY BEHCET: THE Master of the Soprano Sax
Sidney Bechet’s Seven: (Side 1)
Albert Snaer (tp) Wibur de Paris (tb) Sidney Bechet (ss) Buster Bailey (cl) James P. Johnson (p) Walter Page (b) George Wettling (drs)
New York; January 31, 1949
Bob Wilber’s Jazz Band: (Side 2)
Henry Goodwin (tp) Jimmy Archey (tb) Sidney Bechet (ss) Bob Wilber (cl, ss) Dick Wellstood (p) George ‘Pops’ Foster (b) Tommy Benford (drs) (vocal on Love Me With a Feeling by Bechet; on Box Car Shorty by the Duke of Iron)
New York; June 9, 1949
I Got Rhythm (3:10) (Gershwin)
September Song (3:03) (Weill)
Who (2:59) (Kern)
Song of the Medina (2:37) (Bechet)
Broken Windmill (3:13) (Becht)
Love Me with a Feeling (3:22) (Bechet)
Box Car Shortly (3:03) (Knight-Bechet)
Without a Home (3:09) (Bechet)
We tend to take SIDNEY BECHET for granted. His long, vigorous career, which yearly archives more scope, and his easy manner of wearing greatness help us to forget the stature of this artist. With only spotty representation on records in his first twenty years of playing. Sidney has recorded abundantly in the past fifteen years. Most of the dates have set him off as a great soloist - which he is… These recordings, however, prove as well some of the previously under-emphasized facets of the Bechet magic.
The selections of Side 1 give Pops a first-rate environment in which to work. Often, whether by happen-stance or by calculation, Sidney records with average or even inferior talent. Not this time, though. Everyone on this date, excepting only the trumpet player, has a notable jazz reputation; and everyone, without exception, is of great help. Playing with top jazzmen always spurs Sidney to peaks beyond his usual high plane, as on Who and I Got Rhythm, for example. Here, too, is September Song, one of the gems of Sidney's repertoire. It receives the sensitive, charged interpretation that only the master can give. The change of tempo, incidentally, fits naturally and musically into the Bechet conception of this tune, not as an added gimmick.
Sidney has said that he envisages a melody as a story; his playing dramatizes and communicates the emotional flow of the story. This probably has much to do with his depth of expression and command of nuances that lend dignity and impact to even the most simple tune. Bechet attended the opera as a child; he has seldom-exploited acting ability; he believes in presentation as well as pure content in music. Such factors help him to reach a broad audience. Moreover, they contribute to the classic proportions and sweeping majesty of his creations.
This almost formal approach combined with the vitality of jazz, contributes to the timelessness of Sidney's music. It is as though each spontaneous chorus were a structured composition, although the structure would probably suffer if used by another performer.
One musician, however, caught and for a while reflected all but the very strongest of Bechet's light - Bob Wilber. In the Spring of 1949, Wilber and his band of that period joined Sidney to record the remarkable tunes on Side 2 of this LP, enabling us to observe two more aspects of the Bechet talent: the teacher and the composer.
Few reedman since, probably, Old Man Tio have had such a powerful personal effect on other musicians as Bechet. Listen to almost any clarinet or soprano sax man in Europe (particularly those playing in traditional vein). Johnny Hodges' soprano work displays obvious influence. The late Charlie Parker once expressed great admiration for Sidney (Parker's Summertime has traces of that admiration in it). Bob Wilber, although he has recently altered his style rather substantially, was at the time of this record session extremely close to the Bechet sound. Wilber shows here more than external influences; he represents as well how thoroughly Bechet can teach his own approach to jazz - which is to say his approach to life. Sidney's way is not a pompous one; he simply lives with him, which is quite different from one or two scheduled hours a week. The results, as in the case of Wilber, can be phenomenal. It is almost disconcerting to hear teacher and pupil play together and wonder which is which.
Five of the selections on this record are original Bechet compositions. They are hauntingly beautiful and, of course, rather unusual. Sidney has always turned to uncommon things - the soprano, the sarrusaphone, even the taragato. His recent score for a ballet on film was again highly unorthodox. This indivisualistic touch can be heard on Love Me with a Feeling, which Sidney handles in dramatic fashion without affectation. Box Car Shorty proves his warm understanding of West Indian music. The Duke of Iron's vocal confirms the authenticity of this calypso.
The sessions of this record were conducted just as Sidney wanted them. He was undisputed leader and the music comes out accordingly. It hasn't always been that way; there have been that way; there have been many hard years when the uncompromising Bechet, as a sideman, was almost forced out of music by hunger. Yet, he hung on to what he felt to be right. There are endless tales of Sidney's run-ins with other musicians, and even one that claims he was thrown in jail in Europe after a battle over correct harmony. Whether true or not, it illustrates the importance of music to Sidney Bechet. This intense personal drive, so discernible in his playing, has been a special quality in him since his first contact with the clarinet in childhood. If Sidney's mother wanted to punish him, she would simply take his born away for a while.
By 1918, when only 21 years old, Bechet was featured on Will Marion Cook's tour of Europe. His rare ability to pour music through a soprano saxophone (all saxes were pretty bad in those days, and sopranos were and still are extremely difficult to play in tune) appealed to continental audiences so much that Sidney returned many times during the next decade.
The '30s were a scuffle, but the years following World War II permitted Bechet to soar to a new level of proficiency and expressiveness. It seems as if advancing age increases rather than diminishes his power. In the '50s, Sidney returned to Europe, to the scene of his earlier triumphs. He continues to pack concert halls with thousands of fans, many of whom regard Sidney Bechet as something like a god. They many not be too far off the mark at all.
Riverside’s Contemporary Jazz Series includes other outstanding performances by major figures of today
in traditional and Dixieland jazz. Among them are:
George Lewis (RLPs 2507 and 2512)
Lu Watters: 1947 – Yerba Buena Jazz Band, with Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, Bob Helm, Wally rose (RLP 2513)
Yank Lawson’s Dixieland Jazz, with Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, James P. Johnson (RLP 2509)
Wild Bill Davison (RLP 2514)
Notes by Richard B. Hadlock
LP produced by Bill Grauer
Cover by Gene Gogerty
RIVRESIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.