Sidney Bechet was the first master of the soprano saxophone, and indeed, the father of all the others: when the instrument was almost forgotten, Steve Lacy heard Bechet play Duke Ellington's "The Mooche." Then John Coltrane was somehow (there are different versions of the story) introduced to the soprano by Lacy. And the rest is history.
But Bechet's work still remains among the foremost explications of the possibilities of the soprano saxophone, for no one since has approached his ocean-wide vibrato, and his melodic sense of improvisation ranks him with the greatest masters.
For these reasons all hail the appearance of Up a Lazy River, which collects five Bechet sessions, with a varying supporting cast. All were recorded between 1940 and 1949. The music is uniformly outstanding: it's Bechet's patented neo-trad, firmly rooted in the New Orleans idiom but giving plenty of room to the soloists to stretch out. Besides Bechet, there is Muggsy Spanier, a cornetist with a big warm sound hardly heard these days. James P. Johnson plays piano on eight tracks. There's Pops Foster. Baby Dodds. Dick Wellstood. Bob Wilbur.
And there's so much to hear here! The ensemble work and the harmonies show the roots not only of the big bands but even of later "free" ensemble playing. The tunes are all attractive and fun, but the improvisations are far beyond that. Bechet was a master of concision, subtlety, and of the sheer sound of surprise - virtually every one of his solos on this disc takes an unexpected and delightful turn with remarkable fleetness and facility. Don't miss it!