Although he has been dead for more than 50 years, there is really only one name that comes to mind when you think about the soprano saxophone, the grand master of the instrument, Sidney Bechet. Born back in 1897 (on May 14 we celebrate his birthday), he, along with the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, has got to be one of the founding fathers of New Orleans jazz. And if he never quite garnered the kind of popular success of someone like Armstrong, among his fellow musicians it was another story. Sidney Bechet was and remains a musician’s musician.
Bechet Legacy is testimony to the man’s influence. Formed back in 1978 by reed player Bob Wilber, who met Bechet back in the ’40s, then studied and jammed with him over the years and then was joined by trumpeter Glenn Zottola, the Legacy was intended less as an imitation of the master, than as a tribute to his influence. As Wilber puts it in the liner notes to the new double CD release Birch Hall Concerts Live, “There were players around the world who spent their whole life trying to be Sidney Bechet, but they never succeeded because there was only one Bechet.” Zottola, who had been playing with the Glenn Miller Orchestra under Buddy DeFranco and later the Benny Goodman Sextet, says, “When I met Bob and he told me about Bechet Legacy, I dropped what I was doing, mainstream jazz and bebop. And connected back up with my roots.” They played together until 1983, when Zottola, tired of touring, left the group.
The Birch Hall Concerts Live CDs are tapes from two concerts in 1981 and 1982. The personnel for the concerts include pianist Mark Shane, Mike Peters on guitar and banjo, Len Skeat on bass, and Butch Miles on drums. Wilber’s wife Pug Horton does vocals on two tunes.
Of the 23 songs that make up the album, eight are Bechet original compositions, including a ballad like his “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” which is perhaps familiar to modern audiences from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and the swinging “Dans Le Reu D’Antibes.” Most of the material, however, focuses on music that captures the Bechet spirit. As Scott Yanow’s notes introduce the classic “Lady Be Good” that opens the album, “A Bechet phrase starts the performance with each of the concise solos featuring the other musicians playing an infectious riff during the second chorus. Bechet Legacy was never about the music merely being a string of solos.”
Fans of Dixieland music will find a lot to like on this album. Standout tracks on the first disc include Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” an interesting take on the Ellington classic “The Mooche,” and a soulful take on “Sweet Lorraine.” The Pug Horton vocals on tunes like “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” highlight the second disc, along with an impressive upbeat modern reading of “Just One of Those Things” and some exciting ensemble work in “China Boy.” But these are only my own favorites from a set of very fine performances.
Perhaps the best thing about this album though is that in the event, listening to Bechet Legacy sent me to an old carton stored at the back of a closet in search of a vinyl LP I hadn’t listened to in a good 20 years, Sidney Bechet Grand Master of the Soprano Saxophone and Clarinet.