Like Louis Armstrong with the Hot Five, for many listeners Sidney Bechet is the main—or sole—event with Clarence Williams’s Blue Five. Bechet remains one of the most important soloists in jazz’s early days. His technical brilliance, invention and sheer power made him a dominating presence with any ensemble. Close to a century later, Bechet still makes it easy to overlook the musicians around him. Yet he doesn’t always make it necessary.
“Wild Cat Blues” is the first and best-known of Bechet’s sides with the Blue Five, effectively an aria for his soprano saxophone. He likewise stalks over “Kansas City Man Blues” but there is also a cooperative element at work behind him when Tom Morris mutes his cornet:
Morris’s interjections were already tasteful and well-timed. With that soft, vocalistic muted tone, his spare comments now come across like talking drums. It creates a subtle but charming texture and shows an ensemble concept of the music, even if this is still Bechet’s show.
Morris gets more room on “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” actually playing lead and pulling out his specialty of contrasting an embellished melody on open horn with muted improvisation:
Morris’s entrance on mute is delightfully agitated, reveling in shades and growls. This man could play hot. The annals of jazz frequently describe Morris’s playing as “primitive, limited” and “old-fashioned.” It seems Morris was outmoded by the time he began to play on record, but close to a century later his simple but direct style and tense rhythmic concept are so retrograde they sound avant-garde. The music is “new-to-you” and won’t conk out (as long as it’s not loaded down with anachronistic hierarchies).
Even with Bechet back on lead for “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” Morris gets a passionate muted solo and trombonist Charlie Irvis also gets some spotlight:
Another New York jazz musician from before the southern musical invasion, Irvis was one of Duke Ellington’s earliest trombonists, a respected blues player and an originator of muted techniques with a major influence on Tricky Sam Nanton. Ellington praised Irvis’s “great, big, fat sound at the bottom of the trombone [that was] melodic, masculine [and] full of tremendous authority.” The rolling boogie-woogie underneath Irvis on “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” complements that sound and his long, arching phrases. Rather than melodic embellishment or harmonic deconstruction of the tune, Irvis reincarnates it using just timbre.
Irvis’s melody chorus on “Oh Daddy! Blues,” with its sardonic tone and exaggerated legato, add another layer of color as well as irony, in turn picked up by Bechet for his chirping verse:
Morris is earnest by contrast until his break, which seems to say “not so much” to all the sentimentalism.
A simple melodic lead could be just as personal as an improvised solo. Morris makes “Shreveport Blues” his own with relaxed, powerful vocalizing as well as easygoing, well-constructed dialog with Bechet:
“Old Fashioned Love” features a more pacific Irvis and Bechet dancing around him:
Mark Berresford notes that recording engineers were subduing Bechet’s considerable audio presence as these sessions progressed, which may have made Bechet take his own playing down a notch. Bechet actually reveals himself as an inventive and stirring accompanist, even if the loud, broad sound of his soprano sax and his force of personality never stay entirely in the background. Throughout these sessions, Buddy Christian’s banjo is the rock of the rhythm section, and Clarence Williams’s self-effacing piano sometimes peeks in for a brief effect.
Louis Armstrong would eventually replace Tom Morris. These are the most well-known of the Blue Five sessions due to the gladiatorial exchanges between Armstrong and Bechet on tunes like “Texas Moaner Blues” and multiple takes of “Cake Walking Babies.” Yet these earlier Blue Five sides reveal wonderful ensemble details behind their star soloist. This is jazz made by sidemen rather than soloists, maybe not “artists” but certainly proud craftsmen. Musicians like Tom Morris and Charlie Irvis may have known who was in charge but apparently they did not see their role as perfunctory. They were professionals, after all.