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Mezz-Bechet: King Jazz, Volume 1

Although the Mezzrow-Bechet material has been twice reissued on CDs in Europe, George Buck is to be congratulated for finally securing rights to its U.S. release, especially i n Bechet’s centennial year. All known completed takes are here, in chronological order.

Maybe Mezz was, as annotator Paige Van Vorst asserts, “one of the most outlandish figures in jazz.” He was certainly never viewed very sympathetically in his own country, where he served a prison term for selling pot. As a clarinetist, he neither displayed nor claimed an impressive technique, and sometimes it was quite rusty when other pursuits had interrupted his music making. But he could play the blues more convincingly than most of the white musicians who spoke so patronizingly of him and his liking for the black world. The fact that he was responsible for so many successful record sessions during his erratic career attests to his uncompromising vision. It is illustrated by the men he chose, proven players whether out of favor or not’ such as Lips Page, Sammy Price, Danny Barker, Pops Foster, Wellman Braud, Baby Dodds, Sidney Catlett, Kaiser Marshall and, of course, the great Sidney Bechet.

Bechet and Mezz work together surprisingly well. At times they recall that earlier prize duo of Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston, but in a tougher, grainier fashion. Bechet’s soprano is all surging power and assurance (more so than Poston’s alto and not confined to melodic statement), while Mezz does not attempt the elegance of Noone’s improvisation, Despite the occasional technical failures and falterings, Mezz’s commentary is always lucidly to the point. He clearly loved and understood the New Orleans idiom, and Bechet as clearly approved and supported him in his zeal. Both had previously worked with the great Fletcher Henderson trumpeter, Tommy Ladnier, and their remembrance in “Tommy’s Blues. has a special depth of feeling.

The presence of Lips Page on three sessions is a prime example of producer Mezzrow’s sagacity. Who better could have taken Ladnier’s place in 1945? A great jazz musician, Page could also sing the blues with complete authority, as he does on “Blood on the Moon.” Then, too, Mezz introduced a fine blues singer from New Orleans in Pleasant Joseph, better known as Cousin Joe, at the end of a piano-solo session by Sammy Price. Most of the performances, however, are instrumentals by quintets, sextets or septets, and in most cases there are two or more takes.

Five hours of this deep music-mostly blues-is a serious business, one unmarred by cocktail elements or anxious virtuosity.

Bechet stars again in the third of four 1947 This Is Jazz broadcasts, where he does up “Summertime.” again, There are three mildly amusing vocals by George Brunies and one by Albert Nicholas, both of whom play on all tracks with Muggsy Spanier, Danny Barker, Pops Foster and Baby Dodds. Joe Sullivan is at the piano on two programs, Charlie Queener and Art Hodes each on one. Sullivan is the most impressive, but if you haven’t heard Hodes play “Twelfth Street Rag,” here’s your chance! Nicholas and Spanier are their customary reliable and pleasing selves. Several fine samples of Spanier’s unique plunger-muted horn justify the set’s acquisition, although there is rather too much earnest talking by Rudi Blesh. It has to be borne in mind, however, that this kind of music was probably a hard sell in 1947.

Originally Published