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In Tune -- by Eric Seddon
Earlville Association for Ragtime Lovers Yearning for
Jazz Advancement and Socialization
Sidney Bechet with
Noble Sissle (1931-1938
After the brilliance of Sidney Bechet's playing on the recordings with the Clarence
Williams Blue 5, his releases with Noble Sissle and His Orchestra in 1931 are a
disappointment. Relegated mostly to section playing on baritone sax, there is little
to hear beyond the occasional eight or twelve bar solo during competent
commercial dance arrangements.

Despite this, the increasing public demand for big bands must have made the
stability of such gigs attractive, and Bechet returned to the studio with Noble Sissle
and His International Orchestra in 1934. There's nothing bad about the
arrangements; the band sounds good enough, especially when compared to similar
outfits from the early '30s, but Bechet was a poor fit in this sort of music, and for
the most part seems disinterested even in the brief solo passages he's given. An
artist like Bechet was never meant to be used as filler between a vocalist and an
arrangement. On this set, even his more inspired playing on "Polka Dot Rag"
seems out of place. This didn't stop him from continuing, however, fully into the
Swing Era, and it didn't stop Sissle from featuring him on numbers.

Considering the great success of Benny Goodman after 1935, it is somewhat
surprising to hear Bechet still on soprano sax for his solos on tunes such as 1936's
"You Can't Live in Harlem." With all of the band's forces at work, the soprano has
difficulty distinguishing itself timbrally, and however good Bechet's solo, he doesn't
soar the way Benny could in an eight bar break, or how he himself could in a small
ensemble context. If nothing else, recordings like these can help us recognize the
comparative brilliance of Goodman in similar orchestral circumstances,
demonstrating how difficult it is to musically succeed in them. The one occasion
Bechet seems properly used comes on their final orchestral recording with him on
"Dear Old Southland" where he's given a bravura introduction and multiple
choruses. Working within an arrangement that fits his playing better, we're given us
a tantalizing glimpse of what could of been, had his talents been better showcased
in this large ensemble setting.

Perhaps inspired by the success of combos such as the Goodman Quartet, by 1937
Noble Sissle seems to have realized small group work would be worth pursuing
with Bechet, and the results were far more interesting. Of the six sides that were
recorded by "Noble Sissle's Swingsters" and "Sidney "Pops" Bechet with Noble
Sissles Swingsters" in 1937 and '38, five were written or co-written by Bechet, and
several of them are important examples of Bechet's work as a player and
composer. "Okey Doke" and "Characteristic Blues" are chock full of clarinet blues
techniques and, on the latter, even a High Society 'test solo' quote, rounded off
with a glissando. Sidney seems far more relaxed and in his element, able to stretch
and give fuller range to his musical thought. Likewise, "Viper Mad", "Blackstick",
and "When the Sun Sets Down South (Southern Sunset)" are good examples of his
work from this era.    

So what are we to make of the Noble Sissle era? We can be grateful that the
bandleader kept Bechet employed and active in music, documented on recordings,
and that he eventually decided to record to his great soloist's strengths. While the
lion's share of the recordings with Sissle aren't representative of Bechet's
importance or brilliance, there are few, especially from the last sessions, which no
student of Bechet would want to miss.