New Orleans jazz legend Sidney Bechet was all the rage in Paris in the late '40s and early '50s, when he recorded the sides included on disc one of this new two-CD package. After some lean years in the US, when he temporarily dropped out of the music business to run a tailor shop in Harlem, Bechet journeyed to Paris, where his blend of traditional jazz and full-bodied swing made him the toast of the town. He'd live out the rest of his years in France as something of a national icon until his death in 1959.
There's much to appreciate on these French recordings, most notably the sheer beauty and purity of Bechet's sound on both soprano saxophone and clarinet. Whether playing down and dirty blues, New Orleans stompers or standards like Gershwin's "Summertime or Kurt Weill's "September Song, Bechet shines, soaring above the mostly just-average French bands that backed him.
Even better is disc two, drawn from Bechet's New York recordings a decade earlier. Here, in a variety of small-group settings, he has the benefit of playing with sidemen of his own level, like Rex Stewart, Red Allen, Muggsy Spanier, Charlie Shavers, Willie "The Lion Smith, and Earl Hines. Compared to the French sides, the New York disc is grittier and filled with more exciting solos, as Bechet, pushed by more challenging musical environs, ratchets up his game.
Along with some fine music, this attractive set is distinguished by its packaging. It's the latest in a series of releases that pairs historic jazz recordings with specially commissioned comic strips on the musicians' lives. In this case, an amusing sixteen-page vignette on Bechet's Harlem years from artist Julie Faulques provides another reason to check out this collection.
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