Bard College’s Spiegeltent on Thursday night hosted “Sidney Bechet: The Soul of Crescent City” with Aurora Nealand & the Royal Roses. The program was entitled “Jazz Through the Looking Glass: The Hot Jazz Age,” which featured old classics with a contemporary twist. This program was presented by the Catskill Jazz Factory in coordination with the New York Hot Jazz Festival.
The two greatest solo artists ever to come out of New Orleans were Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Both grew up in the same environment of cutting contests where the stamina to outplay another was the ideal. While it was Bechet, a few years older than Armstrong, playing cornet in New Orleans (1922) who first caught Duke Ellington’s attention, yet Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago before Bechet to record his first album a few months earlier. (Bechet left to record in Manhattan in the fall of 1923.)
Bechet, despite his extraordinary talent, could not make a living playing in an orchestra because he taught himself an unusual way of fingering. So he had to scrimp for private lessons, or be available for a pick-up band in New Orleans, which usually meant mostly playing for drinks. When he taught himself to play the straight alto-sax and soprano sax in London, Bechet became a star in France because of the way he could make chords (due to his unusual fingering).
The Royal Roses played assorted standards and much Bechet material, but with a new twist, new arrangements, and their own solo riffs. The new millennials are here with their own take on traditional jazz—giving it a more modern, quirky edge. When playing in unison at full-tilt, the band provides a multi-layered sound that is extraordinary. The latest of their two albums is Sydney Bechet Live, which is a live recording.
California-born Nealand, who also plays clarinet and piano, sang “T’aint nobody’s business,” a Bessie Smith classic, with jaunty soprano range (which echoes her own inimitable soprano sax) that offered a new version of female empowerment. Nealand has excellent diction and her own rhythmic way of phrasing traditional lyrics.
James Evans on clarinet and sax has wonderful tone and phrasing, delivering pulsating pleasure. John Ramm on trombone supplies so much sliding perfect note punch that hearing him play is alone worth the price of a ticket. Matt Bell on guitar offers impeccable back-up and has an attractive mellow solo voice. Benji Bohannon on drums offers percussion that enhances and does not distract.
Bechet had recorded Victor Herbert’s classic “Indian Summer,” so they warped into their own eccentric version with Alban Berg-like inflection—wandering too far from melody for opportunistic, atomistic solos before they re-galvanized for the final climax with great energy and unity. In general the Royal Roses offer a two-step marching impact: tradition made new.
Nealand put new witty lyrics to Bechet’s 1932 “Shag.” This is such a wonderful treat that you might want to purchase their new Bechet album for that track alone.
As they performed a traditional rendition of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” some people started dancing and weaving through tables at this packed, sold-out event.
Nealand dedicated to Henry Butler, the New Orleans pianist who just passed away last week in the Bronx, their version of the late nineteenth century classic “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” That was their last number, but the crowd’s standing applause brought them out for a lengthy segues of meditative solos that were incomparable. They are on Facebook and a YouTube video appears below.
Bard’s Spiegeltent program of summer events is just taking off and promises to be a blockbuster series.