JJ 02/82: Bob Wilber’s Bechet Legacy at Oldham and Blackpool

Forty years ago, Eddie Lambert saw Bechet disciple Wilber do full justice to his inspiration. First published in Jazz Journal February 1982

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Sidney Bechet’s compositions have usually been regarded as the work of a jazz musi­cian who did a bit of occasional writing on the side. One consequence of the work of Bob Wilber’s Bechet Legacy is that we will have to reconsider that view, for the col­lection of Bechet compositions presented by this band, some famous and others little known, add up to an impressive body of work.

Wilber was, of course Bechet’s pupil and with this sextet he offers a programme of Bechet originals with a sprinkling of stan­dards associated with Sidney. Bob’s own playing is, inevitably, the highlight of the group, both his soprano and clarinet work having an extra dimen­sion of passion and commitment compared with the Wilber we have so greatly admired over the past decade. The soaring authority and compelling drive of Bechet’s playing are captured, yet this is no mere imitation.

In standards as diverse as Summertime, China Boy and Down In Honky Tonk Town and in Bechet compositions as diverse as Egyptian Fantasy, Polka Dot Rag and Georgia Cabin, Bob Wilber offers original interpretations in the Bechet man­ner. And as was the case with his mentor, Bob’s ensemble work is as involved and full of interest as his solos. His playing on this tour has reached new heights.

Bob’s front-line partner is Glenn Zottola, a young trumpet player who essays so much that it is a wonder he does not over­reach himself. Even Louis Armstrong’s grand manner is within his ambition and surprisingly often within his grasp. In the ensembles either as lead or in a supporting role Glenn’s work is notable for its thoughtful sensitivity. There is no mistaking the immense promise in the work of this young musician’s vigorous and supremely confident playing. His own first record was reviewed in JJI, October ’81.

In opting for a full rhythm section rather than the more usual three pieces, Bob Wilber ensures a fully rounded and totally varied basis for his music. Mark Shane at the piano, Mike Peters on guitar and ban­jo, and British bassist Len Skeat produce a beautifully blended sound and each con­tributed worthy solos. Drummer Butch Miles is perhaps a shade too insistent in his incessant drive, but there is no doubt that he is the spark plug of this fine rhythm sec­tion and one of the outstanding players in this magnificent jazz ensemble.

The band’s vocalist is Joanne ‘Pug’ Horton and her sets are marked by the very well selected material – doubtless a reflection of her great knowledge of this music. The version of Ghost Of The Blues used by the band benefits from a typically effective Wilber arrangement and her moving ver­sion of Eva Taylor’s Santa Clause Blues was another highlight.

I caught three consecutive evenings by the Bechet Legacy during their recent British tour – two at Birch Hall, Oldham and one in the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. These were the finest jazz sessions I have attended in the recent past and they were in every way memorable. The seasoned au­dience at Birch Hall gave the group a pro­longed standing ovation after each session. One of the numbers written by Sidney Bechet not featured by Bob Wilber’s band is Spreading Joy, but its title accurately in­dicates the effect of this fine band and their undiluted jazz making.