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Sidney Bechet: Runnin' Wild

Mark Barnett By

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If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer for some hints on how to listen.

CD Capsule

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."

Background

"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 bars—sometimes a few notes—was 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 contrast—the explosive pushed up against the expansive—especially 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 music—practically 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"

Track Listing: Sister Kate's Night Out; Tiger Rag; Tin Roof Blues; I Found A New Baby; Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; When The Saint's Go Marching In; Basin Street Blues; Cake Walking Babies From Home; At the Jazz Band Ball; Joshua Fit De Battle Of Jericho; Fidgety Feet; Tailgate Ramble; Copenhagen; China Boy; Runnin' Wild (Alternate Take); Runnin' Wild; Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll (Alternate Take); Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll; Mandy, Make Up Your Mind; Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble

Personnel: Sidney Bechet: Soprano Saxophone; Walter Page: Bass; "Pops" Foster: Bass; Jimmy Archey: Trombone; Freddie Moore: Drums; Slick Jones: Drums; Bob Diehl: Trombone; Wild Bill Davison: Cornet; Art Hodes: Piano; Joe Sullivan: Piano

Title: Runnin' Wild | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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