Boasting a combination of from-the-belly power, touching vulnerability, and assured grace, Bessie Smith weighs in as one of the blues' most proficient interpreters. "Got the world in a jug / the stopper's in my hand," she sang on her first recording, "Down Hearted Blues," and this perfectly summed up the feisty, in-your-face attitude that contributed greatly to the power of her work.
This compilation provides a useful career overview - Columbia has issued five double-CD compilations for those who wish to delve deeper. It begins with three of her earliest recordings from 1923, with only Clarence Williams' piano in support. By 1924, her style had matured significantly, singing with added conviction and a hint of roughness. "House Rent Blues" features Fletcher Henderson's deft piano work and Charlie Green's moaning and plunged trombone while "Weeping Willow Blues" adds Joe Smith's clear and happy cornet to contrast Green's muted tones.
In 1925, Smith benefits from the presence of a young Louis Armstrong. The four tunes with Armstrong are all examples of her finest work. The chilling "St. Louis Blues" crawls along while Satchmo's wailing cornet clearly inspires her. Armstrong playfully whines through "Reckless Blues," but it's "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" that remains a defining statement, with Smith at her absolute grittiest.
The compilation inexplicably skips from August 1925 to March 1928, ignoring her work with notables such as Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, and James P. Johnson, but it returns in time for the six-minute "Empty Bed Blues," a racy and ribald tour de force. The collection ends with 1933's "Gimme a Pig Foot," noteworthy for the presence of Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, and Frankie Newton, though only Newton's trumpet solo makes an impact. Smith, four years away from her death, growls, "Gimme a reefer / and a gang of gin."
If you like Bessie Smith, check out:
Ma Rainey Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Bessie Smith Mama's Got The Blues
-- Marc Greilsamer