Once the favorite son of his native New Orleans, as well as his many adopted European hometowns, Bechet’s recordings are now too often overlooked. Bechet, born in 1897, was a true virtuoso of the clarinet, and played a major part in establishing the instrument’s role in Dixieland and early jazz. His pioneering use of the soprano saxophone set a precedent that would come to fruition in a later generation of saxophonists. Bechet’s penchant for unusual instruments is documented in a few surviving recordings on the bass saxophone and the sarrusophone, instruments as nearly obsolete in Bechet’s day as in our own.
But Bechet’s genius transcended his choice of instrument. His abilities may even have rivaled his contemporary, and sometime bandmate, Louis Armstrong. The eminent Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet upheld Bechet as “the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.” Ansermet would no doubt be disappointed to find his prediction has been disproved.
Bechet’s 1939 recording of “Summertime” reveals a sophistication and maturity which surprise the bebop devotee. The recording was made as a tribute and farewell to Tommy Ladnier, a trumpeter colleague of Bechet’s who had died four days previous to the recording session.
Surrounded by such aging luminaries as Meade “Lux” Lewis and Sid Catlett, Bechet recorded “Summertime” for the fledgling Blue Note label. “Summertime” was Blue Note’s first hit, and laid the groundwork for the label’s lasting dynasty. Bechet’s soprano work on the record is extolled in reverent tones by jazz scholars (” . . . a kind of operatic ideal: rhapsodized, vocalized . . . whose power bursts the confines of any restrictive definition of ‘jazz.'”)
Bechet’s powerful tone and throbbing vibrato identify him immediately. He uses a characteristically broad palette of tone colors, ranging from a delicate whisper to a piercing shout. In measures 20-25, he alternates down-and-dirty growling rips with a pure, bell-like sound in the low register. The growl returns in measures 43-45, this time more insistently. A split tone in measure 14 sounds at first like a mistake, but, intentional or not, Bechet milks it for maximum effect.
The next striking characteristic of Bechet’s playing is the freedom of his rhythm. The relaxed-but-never-stagnant tempo gives Bechet space to experiment with divisions of the beat. He moves convincingly and naturally in and out of the tune’s 4/4 meter, employing, variously, swing rhythms, a 12/8 shuffle, straight sixteenth notes, and a double-time swing. In measures 15-17, Bechet plays a laid-back swing syncopation, followed immediately by a double-time excursion, preparing a new phrase in 12/8. The juxtaposition is jarring only in transcription; on record, Bechet’s rhythmic detours sound effortless and unaffected.
Bechet’s masterful melodic sense is at its peak in “Summertime.” He favors the color of the E-flat as flatted sixth over the tonic G minor chord and as flatted ninth over the dominant D7. He uses drifting chromaticisms to create a sense of lazy melancholy: from D to E-flat and back in measure 11, the surprising D-sharp in measure 27, the minor-7 to major-6 to minor-6 in measure 38, and the growling passage in measures 43-45 are especially notable.
Strangely, Bechet does not play a single flatted fifth, despite the undeniably bluesy mood. Instead, he often approaches the fifth from the flatted sixth. Perhaps this approach to the minor key reflects his love for classical music, especially opera, more than his reputation as a jazz player.
Bechet draws heavily upon the melody for solo ideas. The ninth bar of each chorus makes clear reference to the original melody. Repetition of an idea is another favorite device (see measures 20-25, 43-44, 63-65, and 78).
Bechet’s choice of the soprano saxophone for this performance is perfect for the mood he creates. The soprano’s inherent flexibility of pitch is exploited to great effect in the ubiquitous bends and scoops. The gradations of pitch give a bluesy effect despite the absence of the flatted fifth.
The recording begins with a four-bar guitar introduction, followed by a sixteen-bar statement of the melody and four sixteen-bar choruses of improvised solo. The final chorus ends in a brief cadenza.
Sidney Bechet died in 1959, ironically, the same year that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps were recorded, eclipsing much of the earlier “traditional” jazz. Recent re-releases of Bechet’s recordings, however, are beginning to revive interest in his work. In 2000, looking back over a century of jazz, historian Richard Sudhalter said, “In all jazz history there had never been another performer like him, and in all probability there never will be.”
Ronnie Virgets, “Treat it Gentle,” bestofneworleans.com, 2002. Referenced in October 2002.