Jazz innovator, early soprano saxophone pioneer, gifted improviser with a tone so distinctive it can be recognized within microseconds—this is what musically knowledgeable folks tend to think of when Sidney Bechet’s name comes up. Composer? Not so much. But the New Orleans legend’s catalog of originals was sizable, and fellow soprano master Dave Liebman has done us all a service by researching and interpreting a few highlights, with the expert aid of guitarist John Stowell.
Once you’ve heard some of Bechet’s most memorable tunes, like the elegant “Daniel” and the playfully bluesy “When the Sun Sets Down South,” you may find yourself wondering why they aren’t standards. Liebman handles them with a vigor that feels carefree, then uses them as platforms for searching solos. Stowell’s inventive comping and lead work swings with nary a respite and frequently explores challenging harmonic territory; his occasional tasteful overdubbing of a baritone guitar adds further density. The pair also deserve praise for their clever choice of a tango rhythm on “Premier Bal,” and for the bossa-nova accents on “Nous Deux.”
The one track that doesn’t quite fit the program, even though it was a hit for Bechet in the ’30s, is Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the melody of which Liebman plays on wood flute before moving back to soprano. A striking sound, but what it has to do with Bechet the composer is unclear. Still, that lapse is made up for with three very different yet equally alluring versions of Bechet’s best-known composition, which gives the album its title. One features Stowell in solo-acoustic mode, another features Liebman on solo piano (!), and one is a duo rendition. During the lattermost, Liebman plays with more vibrato than usual, a fond tip of the chapeau to his storied predecessor, who made shakiness a virtue.
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