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Monday, March 1, 2010

Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings Vol. 2


CD I: 1) Frankie Blues; 2) Moonshine Blues; 3) Louisiana Low Down Blues; 4) Mountain Top Blues; 5) Work Hou­se Blues; 6) House Rent Blues; 7) Salt Water Blues; 8) Rainy Weather Blues; 9) Weeping Willow Blues; 10) The Bye Bye Blues; 11) Sing Sing Prison Blues; 12) Follow The Deal On Down; 13) Sinful Blues; 14) Woman's Trouble Blues; 15) Love Me Daddy Blues; 16) Dying Gambler's Blues; 17) The St. Louis Blues; 18) Reckless Blues; 19) So­b­bin' Hearted Blues; CD II: 1) Cold In Hand Blues; 2) You've Been A Good Ole Wagon; 3) Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home); 4) The Yellow Dog Blues; 5) Soft Pedal Blues; 6) Dixie Flyer Blues; 7) Nashville Women's Blues; 8) Careless Love Blues; 9) J. C. Holmes Blues; 10) I Ain't Goin' To Play Second Fiddle; 11) He's Gone Blues; 12) No­body's Blues But Mine; 13) I Ain't Got Nobody; 14) My Man Blues; 15) New Gulf Coast Blues; 16) Florida Bound Blues; 17) At The Christmas Ball; 18) I've Been Mistreated (And I Don't Like It).

The second volume is just as indispensable as the first. It was during this particular period that Smith crashed the last barriers, conquering Detroit and Chicago, teaming up with the hottest play­ers around, gaining the title of «Empress of the Blues» and becoming the most highly paid black performer of her time. If none of this shows on the actual recordings, well, blame it on genre re­quirements: Bessie was paid, first and foremost, for being unhappy on record, and she honestly earned every cent of that pay. Her backing musicians may not have always been taking this idea of unhappiness too seriously — as evidenced by their occasional cheesy insertion of phrases from Chopin's 'Funeral March' into the playing — but she herself was dedicated to it at every session, no matter what her own private circumstances were at the time.

Two major piece of news are in order. First, starting from the third track of the second disc, Bes­sie enters the advanced age of electrical recording; some of her contemporaries had to adjust their style in order to sing into the microphone, but Bessie seemed to latch on to the new technique im­mediately — in fact, celebrating it with her biggest band and her liveliest song so far: 'Cake Wal­kin' Babies (From Home)'. This is pretty much the only example of Bessie's cakewalk that you can hear, but a prime one; her «rocking» numbers, few as they were, shook the floor with more power than any other kind of music at the time, and it is great to hear her singing captured so ma­gnificently with the new recording technology.

Second, the collection includes the several sides Bessie recorded in January 1925 with Louis Ar­mstrong, including the famous 'St. Louis Blues' and the less famous, but, in my opinion, far more subtle and touching 'You've Been A Good Ole Wagon'. The latter is an old vaudeville tune on the unhappy consequences of impotence, but Bessie insists on turning it from an overtly comic num­ber into a tale of personal grief. (Then again, surely it is no laughing matter when the man «done broke down» — if you're going to dump him for that reason, a little sympathy may not hurt).

That said, it has generally been recogni­zed, and I subscribe to the recognition, that Armstrong's backing did not gel ideally with Bessie's singing, or, at least, that these particular tracks are not all that «cornet-important» when compa­red to songs recorded with Joe Smith, Bessie's regular player (no personal relation, though). Louis is technically perfect as usual, but he may be just a tad too happy with his instrument where Bessie would need a more somber manner of playing. Had they spent more time together, he would pro­bably have adjusted better to her style — but even as it is, we got ourselves a one-of-a-kind memento of two giants together at their respective peaks.

Other than that, there are no big surprises, and, as usual, 37 songs in chronological order make it hard to see the inspired masterpieces from simply solid workmanship, but time has ensured that, eighty years from then, not a single one of them comes across as crappy or tasteless. And it was a good idea to make the final break with 'I've Been Mistreated (And I Don't Like It)', the most open­ly aggressive and threatening tune out of the bunch — if the last half-dozen tracks made the mistake of lulling you, the last one will punch you in the guts and leave you aching for more.

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