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Sidney Bechet

Petite Fleur – his 48 Finest: 1923-1958

RETROSPECTIVE TRS 4372

[78:39 + 79:34]

 

CD 1

Petite Fleur

Wild Cat Blues

Kansas City Man Blues

Sweetie Dear

Maple Leaf Rag

Dear Old Southland

Okey-Doke

Blackstick

Really the Blues

Weary Blues

Summertime

High Society

Indian Summer

Sweet Lorraine

China Boy

Four Or Five Times

Perdido Street Blues

Shake It And Break It

Wild Man Blues

Old Man Blues

Blues In Thirds

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Egyptian Fantasy

The Sheik of Araby

When It’s Sleepy Time Down South

CD2

I’m Coming, Virginia

Strange Fruit

Blues In The Air

Twelfth Street Rag

Mood Indigo

After You’ve Gone

St. Louis Blues

Blue Horizon

Milenberg Joys

Days Beyond Recall

Out Of The Gallion

Blame It On The Blues

Old Stack O’Lee Blues

Buddy Bolden Stomp

Where Am I?

I’ve Found A New Baby

Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams

Margie

Black And Blue

Le Marchand De Poissons

Si Tu Vois Ma Mère

The Black Bottom

C Jam Blues

Bechet was, unquestionably, one of the very greatest jazz soloists. As a man (and as a musician) he had a volcanic and restless temperament. His violent and disruptive behaviour got him deported from two counties within a few years – from Britain in 1922 and France in 1929. When he channeled his temperament into his music the results were often remarkable.

This splendid 2 CD set from Retrospective provides convenient access to many of Bechet’s finest moments – so far, at least, as recordings are concerned. It takes its title from one of Bechet’s own compositions ‘Petite Fleur’ which, in a recording made in 1952, for the Vogue label in Paris, was a considerable commercial success. It is also in some ways characteristic of more than a few of Bechet’s recordings (not least his use of a very wide vibrato, which can be very startling at first hearing). The five musicians in the studio with him (trumpet, trombone, piano, bass and drums) were clearly there just as a backing for Bechet and they remain ‘anonymous’, musically speaking. No doubt this was the way in which things were meant to be on this occasion, but on some other recordings Bechet’s dominant personality and his impassioned (and often loud) playing simply forced the other musicians into the background. He could, famously, subjugate most trumpeters (except Louis Armstrong!) with his sound. Opening the first CD with ‘Petite Fleur’ has its justification, though it rather makes a nonsense of the chronological sequence employed throughout the rest of the compilation.

There are a number of tracks here which certainly deserve to be described as ‘masterpieces’ – tracks which are not just amongst Bechet’s “48 finest”, but amongst the best of all jazz recordings. They include ‘Blues in Thirds’(1,21), ‘Egyptian Fantasy’ (1,23), ‘Mood Indigo’ (2, 5), ‘Sweet Lorraine’(1,14), ‘Summertime’ (1,11) and ‘Blue Horizon’ (2,8).

Bechet started out on clarinet and by the age of six was playing in the family-based brass band (The Silver Bells) in New Orleans; he is said to have sat in, aged only ten, with the band of trumpeter Freddie Keppard. In his autobiography Treat it Gentle (first published in 1960) he recounts, amongst memories of his childhood: “Once, I remember, Buddy Bolden was out there singing and playing … I was down there around Canal street somewheres – I was awful little then – and a policeman came along and he looked at my head and he looked at my ass, and he smacked me good with that stick he was carrying. I ran home then and I was really hurting some”. The young Bechet’s talents were soon noticed and he was soon playing, along with cornetist Buddy Petit in a band they called the Young Olympians; he worked with Bunk Johnson’s Eagle Band while still in his teens. Further experience followed with a band led by Armand Piron. By 1919 he was in Chicago, where he worked with Will Marion Cook’s Orchestra, travelling first to New York and then to Europe with Cook. It was when in London with Cook that he saw (and bought), in Wardour Street, a straight soprano saxophone, the instrument he played increasingly from that time on. On being deported from Britain, Bechet returned to New York and found work with, amongst others, the pianist Clarence Williams. It was with Williams that Bechet made his earliest widely-issued recordings. Though the recordings were made in the pre-electric era, on both ‘Wild Cat Blues’ and the powerful ‘Kansas City Man Blues’ Bechet certainly makes himself heard. Some of his breaks on ‘Wild Cat Blues’ (1,2) are searing and ‘Kansas City Man Blues’ (1,3) was an early announcement (in terms of recordings) of his power and prowess as an interpreter of the blues.

Bechet made, indeed, some decent recordings, in 1924-5, with blues singers such as Eva Taylor and Sippie Wallace and the absence of any of these tracks is one of my very few disappointments with this compilation. In 1925 Bechet returned to Europe in La Revue Negre (whose other artists included Josephine Baker). It was to be 1931, and then back in New York (after 11 months in a French prison), before Bechet was in a recording studio again. He worked, and recorded, with groups led by Noble Sissle. In September 1932 he recorded six numbers, in a band (The New Orleans Feetwarmers) which he co-led with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, then a fellow member of Sissle’s band ( the two had previously met in Europe or, at any rate, in Moscow !). Two of these numbers, ‘Sweetie Dear’(1,4) and ‘Maple Leaf Rag’(1,5) are included here. These are engaging tracks, with Bechet on particularly good form on ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (which also has a decent, if brief, solo by Hank Duncan, a largely forgotten pianist who deserves better). The recordings which Bechet made with Noble Sissle (1,6-8) during the 1930s are, on the whole, only of interest for Bechet’s soprano saxophone solos (notably on ‘Okey-Doke’(1,7)). The surrounding arrangements are pretty dull, though that seems not to trouble Bechet. More interesting was the November 1938 session with Tommy Ladnier, represented here by ‘Really the Blues’(1,9) and ‘Weary Blues’(1,10). Better still followed in his first session for Blue Note (recorded in June 1939, which produced a gorgeous version of ‘Summertime’ (1,11), where Bechet was accompanied by the piano of Meade Lux Lewis. the guitar of Teddy Bunn and the bass of Johnny Williams, along with the restrained drums of Sid Catlett. This one track (though there are other examples) would be enough to show that Bechet could compel, and reward, attention even when he didn’t play aggressively or loudly. I’m not so sure that Bechet sounds altogether comfortable on ‘High Society’, playing in a small group led by Jelly Roll Morton. Certainly he has less freedom than he often had. With Muggsy Spanier playing cornet, in a quartet that had neither piano nor drums, Bechet has plenty of room in which to move and makes the most of it in a session recorded in March of 1940. Bechet seems to have enjoyed playing alongside Spanier: on ‘Sweet Lorraine’ (I, 14) the two, supported by the guitar of Carmen Maestro and the bass of Wellman Braud, play some beautifully complementary lines and, for once, Bechet doesn’t seem to be playing competitively. ‘China Boy’ (I, 15) and ‘Four or five Times’ (I, 16) are also very attractive.

Bechet had known Louis Armstrong (who was the younger by some four years) since their childhood years in New Orleans; the two of them, by their virtuosity and inventiveness, effectively broke down the closely organized style of the traditional New Orleans idiom and did much to heighten the importance of the improvising soloist in the further development of jazz. When the two came together (not for the first time) in a New York studio on May 27 1940 to play, in a band described as ‘Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra’ the music was, predictably enough, of considerable interest, as in ‘Perdido Street Blues’ (1,17) – one of three tunes this sextet recorded. Armstrong opens, playing with all the authority one expects from him, but the temperature doesn’t drop when Bechet takes over. The track isn’t quite as dazzling as one might have expected, but its interest never flags. Better still came from a recording session in Chicago on September 6 1940. A trio of Bechet, Earl Hines and drummer Baby Dodds recorded ‘Blues in Thirds’ (1,21) and, supplemented by Rex Stewart (cornet) and John Lindsay (bass), ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ (1,22). The outstanding track is ‘Blues in Thirds’ – still one of the greatest of all jazz recordings. Hines and Bechet, both musicians of the very highest order play, one senses, with mutual respect and in a manner which ensures that each brings out the best in the other. This is a track one can listen to over and over again, hearing new felicities each time (That, at least, has been my experience). On ‘E gyptian Fantasy ’ (1,23) Bechet was joined by trumpeter Henry Red Allen and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, with a rhythm section made up of James ‘Buster’ Tolliver (piano), Wellman Braud (bass) and J.C. Heard (drums). On this recording, made on January 8 1941, Bechet plays clarinet (superbly), rather than the soprano saxophone on which he more often soloed at this time. In his booklet essay, Ray Crick describes (quite justly) Bechet’s playing as a “clarinet tour-de-force”. An oddity is ‘The Sheik of Araby’ (1,24); Bechet plays all six instruments – clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones, piano, bass and drums) in an early example of multi-tracking. The track is best appreciated as an interesting novelty rather than for any particular musical worth. In Treat it Gentle Bechet confesses that he got rather confused during the recording and reports a subsequent conversation with Fats Waller. Bechet told Waller “‘It would have been all right if we would have had a rehearsal before’ meaning the engineer and myself … But Fats … laughed and said ‘Man, how the hell are you going to have a rehearsal with yourself?’”.

In the later years (1941-1953) covered by Disc 2 in this set, Bechet didn’t hit the musical heights quite so frequently, in part because he was too often playing with lesser musicians and, perhaps as a result, he played with reduced intensity. Happily, there were some exceptions. One was ‘Blue Horizon’ (2,8) recorded for Blue Note in December 1944. In a frontline with the trumpet of Sidney DeParis and the trombone of Vic Dickinson (the rhythm section consisting of pianist Art Hodes, bassist Pops Foster and drummer Manzie Johnson), Bechet’s clarinet dominates proceedings and he sounds majestic throughout. The 1945 Blue Note recordings with Bunk Johnson were only patchily successful – on several of the tracks Johnson sounds both physically and mentally somewhat out of his depth. Johnson didn’t play, it seems, between 1931 and 1942, and was only able to resume playing once patrons had acquired a new trumpet for him and Bechet’s brother Leonard, by profession a dentist, had designed, and fitted for him, a new set of teeth. However, the two tracks (out of 6 recorded) presented here, ‘Milenberg Joys’ and ‘Days Beyond Recall’(2,9-10) are strangely touching, and they certainly deserve their place in this compilation, even if primarily for historical reasons rather than absolute musical value. It is quite moving to hear the changed relationship between the two men. Back in New Orleans, the older Johnson had furthered Bechet’s career: “I was about seventeen when I first started playing with the Eagle Orchestra. I was living at home and Bunk Johnson came and promised my mother he would watch out for me: he’d come by for me when we were to play and he’d take me back … He was a great blues player. He drank awful heavy, but he always took care of me. Bunk was the quietest man, even with all his drinking” ( Treat It Gentle). Now the roles were, in a way, reversed. Bechet was ‘taking care’ of Johnson, helping him to enjoy a short last phase as an admired musician (he suffered a stroke in 1948 and died the following year). The respect in which Bechet held Johnson is almost audible on these tracks, as he supports the trumpeter and is careful to subordinate himself to Johnson in ensemble passages. Of ‘Days Beyond Recall’ Bechet himself observed (to quote Treat It Gentle again) “that was real fine” and, in a strange way it is as when, for example, Bechet fills out Johnson’s wavering sound in the opening statement of the theme.

Elsewhere on CD2 there is real pleasure to be had from tracks such as ‘Old Stack O’Lee Blues’ (2:13), with Bechet and Nicholas playing eloquently, alone and together, with the support of Art Hodes’ piano, or on ‘Si Tu Vois Ma Mère’ (2:21), with Bechet supported by Claude Luter and his band in a rhapsodic solo interpretation. I was especially pleased to ‘discover’ ‘The Black Bottom’ (2,22) – a track I can’t remember hearing before, though I feel sure that I must have done. Recorded in Paris in October 1952 it is played by a trio of Bechet (playing soprano), Lil Hardin Armstrong (piano) and Zutty Singleton (drums); it is a fiercely driven stomp, the energy of which makes it sound like the work of three much younger musicians. The final track, ‘C Jam Blues’ (2,23), finds Bechet in the company of Vic Dickenson in a live recording made in Boston in October 1953, it is a fitting close to the album, firstly because it was to prove the last recording Bechet would make in America, secondly because, even if one wouldn’t claim it to be the very greatest of either Bechet or Dickinson, it is an enjoyable performance (the theme is apt insofar as Bechet and the work’s composer, Duke Ellington, had an enduringly high regard for one another). Amongst the remaining tracks on CD2 there are fewer ‘great’ performances than are to be found on the first CD in the set, yet everything is entirely listenable (I’m not sure that I have ever heard a dull recording that included Bechet amongst its personnel).

Both as an artist and as a man Bechet was a contradictory personality. Writing in Jazz on Record Max Harrison summed up the nature of Bechet the musician with admirable concision: “The impact of Bechet’s output is in part due to its combination of violence and sensuous beauty”. In a piece on Bechet in Jazz: The Essential Companion (1988), Digby Fairweather quotes Barney Bigard (Bechet’s fellow clarinetist) thus: “Some people say Sidney was the most temperamental son-of-a-bitch in music; others say he was the nicest man you ever met”. These analogous comments point to the polarities between which Bechet lived and played. Bechet comes close to recognizing this himself in the opening chapter of Treat It Gentle: “Oh, I can be mean – I know that. But not to the music. That’s a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle”.

This 2CD set, in its chronological sweep and in the intelligence with which it has been selected, provides a fine survey of how Bechet ‘treated’ music. To anyone who doesn’t know Bechet’s work this would be a very good place to start; for those who already love his music it will probably fill some gaps in their collection (and maybe remind them of recordings they had forgotten!).

Glyn Pursglove


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