Birch Hall Concerts Live-- The Bechet Legacy

Lovers of classic jazz, and Bob Wilber's Soprano Summit (co-led with Kenny Davern) and Bechet Legacy groups in particular, will want to run not walk to pick up this two-fer containing over two hours of previously unreleased music from The Bechet Legacy during its 1981 and 1982 British tours. Those familiar with The Bechet Legacy's On the Road album, recorded in studio with the same personnel while in the midst of the 1981 British tour, will have a very good idea of what to expect, but these 23 live tracks are even more exhilarating and rewarding. Wilber's ravishing soprano sax and clarinet are joined on the totally-in-sync front line by dynamic trumpeter Glenn Zottola, and they are fervently supported by pianist Mark Shane, guitarist Mike Peters, bassist Len Skeat, and drummer Butch Miles, with Wilber's wife Joanne "Pug" Horton providing gratifying vocals on several numbers. As one would expect, most of the selections were either composed and/or associated with the great soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, with whom Wilber studied, performed, and even lived as a young man in the late '40's.

Bechet and Louis Armstrong recorded "Down in Honky Tonk Town " together in 1940, and this up tempo version captures their spirit, with Wilber's soprano and Zottola's trumpet evoking their respective idols with aplomb. The other four players solo enthusiastically as well before a typically heated ensemble finale. "Coal Cart Blues" was recorded by Armstrong both with and without Bechet, and this arrangement with the two horns plus rhythm guitar and bass vividly captures the sound of the Bechet-Spanier Big Four, with solo space for all four and soprano and trumpet interacting mellifluously. Bechet's evocative "Egyptian Fantasy" is sensitively performed by Wilber and Zottola, as they brilliantly inject their own personal touches into the harmonious mix. "Lazy Blues," an early Bechet composition, is given a deceptively relaxed spin by Zottola and Wilber on clarinet, with the latter's penetrating, incisive solo, and Zottola's commanding, exultant statement to follow. Shane enhances the track with his stylish stride improv. "Summertime" was a hit for Bechet, and Wilber brings both his own and Sidney's personalities to the fore, playing the soprano with less vibrato but no less lyrical flair than his inspiration.

Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," a favorite of Bechet's, gets a stirring run-through by Wilber's resonant clarinet and Zottola's gutsy plunger-muted trumpet, along with some elegant fills from Peters. Bechet's lovely, sentimental ballad "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" finds Wilber's soprano and Zottola in captivating harmonic allegiance, and the trumpeter delivers a stunningly expressive solo prior to the duo's unabashedly melodic reprise. The Bechet tune "Dans Le Rue D'Antibes" has a buoyant marching theme and rhythm, and Wilber's extended soprano flight escalates in intensity as Zottola riffs and Shane strides. Zottola succeeds him in his best jabbing, wailing form, and after the pianist's prancing improv, the two lead voices hook up for two intertwining, joyful choruses. Also patterned after a Bechet-Spanier Big Four arrangement is "Sweet Lorraine." Wilber on soprano and Zottola are compelling in their keen lyricism both together and individually, with the latter especially fiery and imaginative. Wilber and Bechet recorded "Polka Dot Stomp" in 1947 and both soprano and trumpet here pounce infectiously on its "Muskrat Ramble"-like changes, as do Peters and Shane in their solos.

One luxuriates in the delightful harmonic blend of unison soprano and trumpet on the theme of Bechet's celebratory "Promenade Aux Champs-Elysees." Wilber's solo perfectly combines melodicism with rhythmic vitality, while Zottola follows Armstrong's example in his highly communicative pronouncement. Shane's effervescent turn is also a stimulating listen, and Skeat and Miles are given space to entice as well. Bechet's endearing "Georgia Cabin" is split between soprano and trumpet before Zottola's majestic solo and Wilber's more subtly ingratiating one. The wealth of riches on these two glorious CDs also includes superior performances of the standards "Memories of You," "Oh, Lady Be Good," and "Just One of Those Things," in addition to Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream," and Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," and "I Got It Bad and that Ain't Good," the latter highlighted by Horton's deep-toned, nuanced reading of the lyrics, not a little remindful of Jack Teagarden's approach.

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Scott Albin