If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer
for some hints on how to listen.
Two hot jazz legends melt the thermometer, pushing each other to produce the most inspired work of their careers. As the sportscasters say, "They came to play."
"So these two alpha-male jazz musicians walk into a bar..." No, in this case they walked into a studio and made some outstanding (and oddly overlooked) recordings. Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davison were known as dominant horn players, but they didn't use this occasion as a slam-dunk contest to show how loud or fast they could play. And they didn't succumb to caution by falling back on what they'd done before and wishing the whole thing were over. (This don't-take-a-chance approach isn't uncommon when stars are pushed into sharing the spotlight.)
Simply put, Bechet and Davison inspired each other to produce some of the best work they would ever record. This may have been the first time they made records together, but each was a luminary in the world of hot jazz well before these sessions took place. And each was so unique that hearing them play just a few barssometimes a few noteswas enough to identify them with DNA accuracy. There was no one quite like them before they came along, and no one to replace them when they were gone.
Davison's incendiary cornet playing, in which every note seemed squeezed out of an orifice too small to accommodate it, gave new meaning to the word "supercharged" (and the name "Wild Bill"). For more on Davison, see the article "The Commodore Master Takes" in this "Getting Into Jazz" series.
Bechet was a phenomenon unto himself, with an aggressive musical attack and a rich sound that were his and his alone. He originally played clarinet, but it was too puny an instrument to contain what he needed to express, or to satisfy his drive to be heard over the crowd (of listeners or other musicians). The more assertive soprano sax, whose piercing sound could prevail in any ensemble or cut through the clatter of the noisiest jazz club, turned out to be Bechet's enabler. It became the vehicle through which he could tap into a deep reservoir of emotion while assuring dominance over other musicians. "I am not an adjunct," he seemed to be saying. Yet no matter how driven, Bechet was able to coax a wonderful sweetness out of that instrument, playing it with his soul on his sleeve and inviting you to share his passion. To this day, that's hard to resist.
What to listen for in this CD? Above all, soak up the sheer fervor of the two players. Davison, a musical machine gun, spits out the notes at ground level, while Bechet, on gossamer wings, soars on the updrafts. Listen for this contrastthe explosive pushed up against the expansiveespecially when they're playing counterpoint, in which Bechet is an assertive, co-equal partner.
To see the two partners in action, go to Google Images and enter "Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davison." Look for Bechet on the right side of the photo, Davison in the middle, and bassist Pops Foster on the left.
You'll also notice that some of the tracks on the disc include a trombonist (either Bob Diehl or Jimmy Archey) to fill out the ensembles. You may or may not find this distracting.
A note about "Darktown Strutters' Ball," the sample track at the bottom of this article. At this writing, it's the only piece of the original recording session that's on YouTube, but it wasn't included in the CD re-issue. Although I might not have chosen it as a "CD highlight," it's more than enough to convey the music's flavor.
CD highlights Track 4, "I Found a New Baby"
This may be the most powerful track in the collection, with no piano interlude or trombones to dilute the effect of those two horns. The counterpoint begins as soon as they're out of the starting gate, with Davison punching out the primary melody while Bechet weaves his way in and around him. Even when the tempo is fast, notice how easy it is to distinguish the two simultaneous lines of musicpractically a vacation for your ears and brain. It's partly Bechet's drive to be heard and partly the soprano sax, his trusty enabler. There's an odd twist from 02:04 to 02:20, when Davison blows like an animal howling at the moon while Bechet dances around him. Davison gets back to business at 02:35, and it's a fireworks display until the end. Track 7, "Basin Street Blues"
If this lovable old song is new to you, let Ray Charles charm you with its words and music. Then turn things over to Bechet and Davison, who will elevate lovable to memorable. As you listen to Davison's opening solo, at 0:32, imagine emotion in a pressure cooker. It's as though he's forcing the beauty inside, letting just its essence squeeze out through the horn. It's a beautiful piece of work, but the tension needs release, and Bechet provides It at 01:20 with a soaring, wide open solo that invites you to breathe deeply again. Listen at 02:09 as Bechet kicks up the intensity, turning "Basin Street" into a rhapsody. At 02:33, a full-throated finish with just the right touch of trombone.
Here's a Basin Street bonus: next time you meet someone who can't understand your love of jazz, remember the line in the song that goes, "You'll never know how nice it seems or just how much it really means." You can say it, or just think it. Track 3, "Tin Roof Blues"
How closely intertwined can two horns get? You'll hear the answer in the first chorus of this deep-down bluesy track. It opens with Davison playing the lead melody, Bechet doing counterpoint. But listen carefully at 0:09 and then again at 0:20 as Bechet seamlessly slips in and finishes Davison's sentences. Unless you're concentrating, those switches are all but undetectable. There's magic to that kind of rapport.
At 01:11, as Davison growls out a raspy, low-register solo, listen for Bechet's sweet musings in the background. At 01:44 the tables are turned as Bechet sails off while Davison mutters quietly at ground level.
A piece of Tin Roof trivia: in the 1950's, someone lifted the dullest part of the melody, tacked on some words, called it "Make Love to Me," and turned it into a hit for singer Jo Stafford. Tchaikowsky, Rachmaninoff and Chopin had already been mugged for pop tunes, so why not? Track 18, "Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll"
Note that the disc provides two versions of this song. Listen to track 17 and pay special attention to the opening ensemble, in which Bechet's counterpoint is actually louder than Davison's primary melody. Apparently no one in the control booth pronounced this "out of balance," and so we have an unusual opportunity to hear Bechet weave his way around the tune Davison is playing.
You've no doubt guessed by now that "jelly roll" in this context does not refer to a fruit-filled pastry. I won't take it further, but you can satisfy your curiosity by Googling "Wikipedia, slang, jelly roll." Track 6, "When the Saints Go Marching In"
"Oh no, not 'The Saints' again," you're thinking. And who can blame you? This poor old Dixieland warhorse has been so beaten into the ground that some musicians, apparently fearing terminal boredom, have either refused to play it or extracted a cash bonus from the tourists who request it. (Jazz fans know better than to ask.)
But wait, there's good news here. In a minor musical miracle, Bechet and Davison snap the old horse out of its coma and it gallops away in a cloud of adrenaline. Which is to say, "The Saints" may rival "New Baby" as the most exciting track on the disc.
There's certainly not much excitement in the opening. After a bit of solo piano on "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," Bechet reminds us that "The Saints" was a gospel hymn before there was jazz, and he pounds it out with virtually no syncopation, every note hit like a hammer, right on the beat. (You can almost hear the clapping of hands here.)
The miracle begins at 0:37, when Davison enters the picture. Listen to how he makes the atmosphere crackle with just his first four notes, compressing four beats ("Oh, when the saints...") into one and punching up the mood from earnest to urgentfrom gospel to jazz, in other words. The most memorable part of the track is the final chorus, when Davison, in a fit of cornet frenzy, pushes things as far as they'll go. Listen to the five electrifying notes he blows at at 02:39 (again lining up with "Oh, when the saints..."). Oh, what an ending.