Sidney Bechet (Mosaic)
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., Feb. 24, 2006
Soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet couldn't compete commercially with his contemporary Louis Armstrong, but he matches Satch's extraordinary musical ability on this 3-CD reissue. On disc one, 1923-25, Bechet is a sideman in the band of Clarence Williams, appearing on 25 selections, many of which feature gutty vocalists. Armstrong pops up on six performances. At this time, jazz solos were short, ensemble improvisation dominating the recordings, but listen to Bechet. He shows off tremendous presence, with huge tone and wide vibrato, swinging like crazy (he was among the first jazzmen to swing), using searing glissandi, and employing triplets creatively. Even on these primitively recorded tracks he shines like a beacon. Remember too, that although he wasn't well-known like Armstrong, he was the major influence on Johnny Hodges, and, through the Ellington sideman, influenced a ton of alto saxmen. Not surprisingly, the best tracks here team Bechet and Armstrong. They're superb on tempos ranging from slow, "Texas Moaner Blues," to rapid, "Cake Walking Babies From Home." At this time, Bechet may have had an edge on the younger Armstrong. Highlighting the second disc, the 1930s, are Bechet's appearances with Noble Sissle's big band; the Swingsters, a group out of Sissle's band; and with a 1938 sextet. Bechet is brilliant everywhere, but dig guitarist Leonard Ware on the sextet tracks. He not only recorded electric guitar before Charlie Christian, Ware was an exceptionally thoughtful soloist. Check out vocalist Billy Banks' yodeling on "Characteristic Blues" as well. The third CD contains material cut during two July 1947 sessions with piano, bass, and drums. Each tune is recorded two to four times, and while all have impressive moments, there's a lot of repetition happening. No one ever repeated Bechet's accomplishments. (Order direct from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT, 06902; 203/327-7111; www.mosaicrecords.com.)
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