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Monday, February 22, 2010

Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings Vol. 1


CD I: 1) Downhearted Blues; 2) Gulf Coast Blues; 3) Aggravatin' Papa; 4) Beale Street Mama; 5) Baby Won't You Please Come Home; 6) Oh! Daddy Blues; 7) 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do; 8) Keeps On A-Rainin' (Papa, He Can't Make No Time); 9) Mama's Got The Blues; 10) Outside Of That; 11) Bleeding Hearted Blues; 12) Lady Luck Blues; 13) Yodling Blues; 14) Midnight Blues; 15) If You Don't, I Know Who Will; 16) Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine; 17) Jailhouse Blues; 18) St. Louis Gal; 19) Sam Jones Blues; CD II: 1) Graveyard Dream Blues; 2) Cemetery Blues; 3) Far Away Blues; 4) I'm Going Back To My Used To Be; 5) Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time; 6) My Sweetie Went Away; 7) Any Woman's Blues; 8) Chicago Bound Blues; 9) Mistreatin' Daddy; 10) Frosty Morning Blues; 11) Haunted House Blues; 12) Eavesdropper's Blues; 13) Easy Come, Easy Go Blues; 14) Sorrowful Blues; 15) Pinchbacks — Take 'Em Away!; 16) Rocking Chair Blues; 17) Ticket Agent, Ease Your Win­dow Down; 18) Bo Weavil Blues; 19) Hateful Blues.

Typically, one's acquaintance with the «urban blues» of the roaring decade begins with Bessie Smith — and, also typically, ends there, because it takes the modern listener a long time to get settled into that creaky, hissy, monotonous, faraway groove, and not everyone can make it at all, much less become interested in exploring that groove even further. Still, it is not very difficult to understand what exactly was it that charmed audiences back then in this kind of music — and what it is that makes the retro-fan share the same sentiments almost a century later.

It is much harder to understand and explain what it is, exactly, that sets Bessie Smith so far apart from all the other innumerable «blues queens» of the day: Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Clara Smith, Alberta Hunter, Lucille He­gamin, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace... the list is really endless, and all of them were first-rate entertainers in their own right. And yet, it is not just some arbitrary histori­an's choice that randomly picked Bessie from this crowd and set her on a particularly impressive pedestal. The fact is that the blues boom of the 1920s did not properly set in until the arrival of Bessie, and, even though she was far from the first blues queen to appear on record (Mamie Smith had her beat by three years at least), it was she that, almost overnight, turned the blues re­cording business from a modest kingdom into a huge empire — rightfully earning the title of «Em­press Of The Blues», under which she was billed throughout most of the decade.

The reason certainly does not lie in the music, or the arrangements. Song-wise, Bessie was recor­ding more or less the same compositions as everyone else — sometimes borrowing songs that had already become hits with her competition, sometimes giving them away, according to the co­mmon rules of the trade. As for the accompaniment, it is certainly hard to complain: almost from the beginning, after a brief stint with pianist and (rather ruthless) promo man Clarence Williams, her main partner was Fletcher Henderson, one of the biggest piano men of the decade, whose tire­less «flourishing» graces a lot of these tracks and seriously raises the stakes in the beauty depart­ment. But still, there is no denying that many blues queens back then got prime backing from dex­terous jazz and blues musicians.

Obviously, the public was buying not because it wanted to hear more of Fletcher Henderson, but because it needed all the magic it could get from Bessie herself. So, what was that magic, and can we still perceive it, being so far removed from its time?

The way I see it, Bessie represented the first step on a long emotional journey whose purpose is to free performing art from its performing conventions and to imbue it with realistic emotion. When you listen to the other «queens» of the time, what you get is essentially show-biz. Now do not get me wrong: when you listen to Bessie, what you get is also show-biz. But the first show-biz is show-biz presented as show-biz, whereas Bessie's show-biz is awesomely more life-like. Roughly speaking, she sings it like she means it, while such performers as Mamie Smith or Alberta Hunter would sing it like they were expected to sing it.

This point will become very simple and obvious if, for instance, one listens to Alberta Hunter's 'Downhearted Blues' and Bessie's rendition of the same song — her very first recorded side — in a row. Hunter is cute, elegant, and pleasant; she hits all the right notes, but, essentially, sounds like she is mostly doing it just for the applause. Her 'gee, but it's hard to love someone, when that someone don't love you' certainly does not sound like it is really coming from someone in painful love with someone else. Bessie, ditching the lightweight vaudeville horns, with nothing but Cla­rence Williams' minimalistic piano behind her back, takes it to a whole different level. It is not just that her voice is deeper and stronger; it is that she really modulates it to fit the lyrics and the general mood, actually putting the blues back into the blues where the blues belong.

Formally, much of this is still «vaudeville» rather than true blues, but emotionally, this is troubled music, and even though Bessie's own troubled times, aside from some tumultu­ous personal rela­tions, ended pretty soon after she began her recording career, this never impacted her ability to deliver music that people could properly relate to, rather than just use it for parties. Can people still relate to it? Well, take my own case: while I have learned to enjoy female urban blues as such, almost none of it has managed to seriously stick in my mind — and yet, at the same time, 'Downhearted Blues', 'Gulf Coast Blues', 'Baby Won't You Please Come Home', the absolutely powerhouse 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do' (a classic that nearly every bluesman has performed since and not a single one has performed better), 'Lady Luck Blues' — these are just some of the tunes from this first volume of recordings that have struck a deep chord with me.

Keep in mind that I mentioned «first step»: in 1923, «emotional» blues singing was too young yet to include screaming one's head off, going from shrill to hushed in a matter of seconds, or ad-lib­bing whatever impulse came into your head like crazy. The inexperienced listener should not be ex­pecting a Janis Joplin here, or an Aretha Franklin, or even a Billie Holiday, even though all three were clearly indebted to Bessie, directly or indirectly (and Billie, in particular, used to sing quite a bit of Bessie's material). In essence, this is traditional, gimmick-free singing — but very human, very approachable, and, while we're at it, quite powerful: most of the «strong, indepen­dent» women of the more recent eras of pop music really sound like vague, insecure bimbos next to the strength and confidence that Smith exudes on almost every performance.

Obviously, the Complete Recordings series, even for giants like Bessie, are overkill, and she does not always sing with the same level of intensity, not to mention that much of the material just does not have any pre-written hooks to latch on to. There is also a horrendous recording that, for some stupid marketing reason, pairs Bessie with Clara Smith, a decent performer in her own rights — but together they form The Hungry Cat Duo, singing so drastically off-key that the only purpose of it must have been to imply that they should never be put on the same record again.

But this is obligatory nitpicking — when you strive for completism, you should know beforehand that not everything is going to be great. On the positive side, these cannot even be called the for­mative years: Bessie was just as fantastic on her first records as she was on her last — fresher, in fact, and with an overall higher proportion of truly timeless classics. Only historians need access to all the 38 tracks on here, but regular music lovers who do not have access to at least a dozen have missed a good friend. Thumbs up.

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