Bessie Smith perished in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale Mississippi in 1937. Almost seventy years later, the "Empress of the Blues" continues to loom large in the American psyche. She, along with Louis Armstrong, definedno, originatedthe craft of jazz vocals. Naxos Jazz Legends begins its documentation of the Smith legend with a release of some of her earliest extant recordings for Columbia between February 1923 and April 1924. Ms. Smith had sparse accompaniment, usually only a piano or a piano plus a second instrument, such as a guitar or violin. The pianists include Clarence Williams, who also penned five of the eighteen selections, and Fletcher Henderson.
Listening to these recordings 80 years down the road offers us a brief glimpse of American vocal arts at ground zero. Smith’s phrasing derived from that of the Delta blues singers crossed with Vaudeville. Listening to these sides is like hearing Robert Johnson after Led Zeppelin. It is the epiphany of realizing that there is nothing new under the sun and that sometimes the original is best left alone. The sonics of these old recordings have been improved by technology, but not enough to remove the sepia tone from the music. This is music so strong and vibrant that it emerges from the murk of decades.