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Buster Bailey: All About Memphis

Andrew J. Sammut By

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Buster Bailey's skill as both an improviser and section man made him a shoo-in for some of the best gigs in jazz history. Starting, from his teenage years, with W.C. Handy, steady employment under King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, John Kirby and Louis Armstrong also left the clarinetist little time (perhaps need) to record as a leader. Fortunately jazz raconteur Stanley Dance saw fit to put just Bailey (and some of his original compositions) in front of a rhythm section on the short-lived Felsted label, highlighting the phenomenal technique that kept him so consistently in demand.

The medium tempo "Hatton Avenue and Gayoso Street" features the intricate lines and slight push on the beat for which Bailey was known. "Hot Water Bayou" is taken at a speedy clip and Bailey becomes a whirlwind of runs, octaves and spiky arpeggios. Two compositions by his first boss and fellow Memphis native Handy show off Bailey's melodic side: Bailey adds wit and an impressive cadenza to the well-worn "Beale Street Blues," while "Memphis Blues" is taken at an intriguingly slow tempo to show off his tone, phrasing and utter control. Midway through, Bailey delivers perfectly even tremolos followed by some well-placed growls for more of a miniature jazz concerto than down home blues.

Some critics have dismissed Bailey as a skilled but unimaginative technician. While he may have lacked Sidney Bechet's earthy lyricism or Benny Goodman's slickness, Bailey forged his own style based on the nuts and bolts of his classical training (under the same Chicago clarinetist who taught both Goodman and Jimmie Noone). There's a confidence as well as transparency to Bailey's sound, like getting a closer look at the fine seams of a designer suit.

A firm, swinging rhythm section supports Bailey throughout, with pianist Red Richards adding a gospel feel to "Memphis Blues" and Earl Hines-like phrases on "Hot Water Bayou." On three tracks, fellow big band veterans Herman Autrey and Hilton Jefferson, as well as the subtly sardonic Vic Dickinson, join Bailey. "Bear Wallow" is a round robin of simple but effective blues choruses. "Chickasaw Bluff" begins with a pumping work song and includes Autrey squawking in half- and quarter-valve tones.

Bailey mostly leaves his guests plenty of room, but after the expected march introduction on "Sunday Parade," the tune becomes a miniature big band flag-waver and Bailey throws down the gauntlet. After so many years of Bailey sharing solo space alongside more famous colleagues, and even on his own date, it's still surprising but also rewarding to hear Bailey cutting loose.

Track Listing: Bear Wallow; Hatton Avenue and Gayoso Street; Sunday Parade; Beale Street Blues; Memphis Blues; Chickasaw Bluff; Hot Water Bayou.

Personnel: Buster Bailey: clarinet; Red Richards: piano; Gene Ramey: bass; Jimmy Crawford: drums; Herman Autrey: trumpet; Vic Dickenson: trombone; Hilton Jefferson: alto sax.

Title: All About Memphis | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Felsted

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