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Empress of the Blues Volume 2: 1926-1933 (CD A, 1926-1928)

Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, Joe Smith & James P. Johnson

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Album Review

JSP's Empress of the Blues, Vol.2 might well be the best Bessie Smith collection ever released in any format, for a number of reasons. In addition to the excellent audio remastering which characterizes most of this label's reissuing efforts, the stated time frame of volume two encompasses the last seven years of this amazing woman's recording career. It includes some of the finest sides she ever cut with anybody. Here are her priceless collaborations with pianist James P. Johnson. Their interaction on "Back Water Blues," "Lock and Key," and "Wasted Life Blues" virtually defines the magic of classic blues and jazz. Here are many of Smith's strongest recorded encounters with members of the Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams bands. Her famous "St. Louis Blues" film soundtrack is part of this set, as are her last four recordings, cut in November 1933 with a hot jazz band led by pianist Buck Washington. She is roundly supported by trumpeter Frankie Newton, trombonist Jack Teagarden, saxophonist Chu Berry, and (on the rowdy "Gimme a Pigfoot") clarinetist Benny Goodman. All of this would suffice to place this set well among the top Bessie Smith collections. What distinguishes it from most of the rest (including about ten other similarly titled compilations) is the inclusion of 11 bonus tracks that half-fill the fourth disc. Most of them are test pressings; the rest are alternate takes, and these rarities are drawn from various points in her career, all the way back to 1923. They are the rarest Bessie Smith recordings in existence. Each and every one is exceptionally well performed, and the sound quality is as good as it gets. There is no topping this combination of her complete mature works and those previously unreleased tracks which are the "Dead Sea Scrolls" of Bessie Smith appreciation, miraculously rescued from oblivion and appended onto what has got to be the strongest possible choice for anyone interested in this artist and how she articulated the timeless realities of what it can mean to be a woman on this earth.


Born: 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga, TN

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '20s, '30s

The first major blues and jazz singer on record and one of the most powerful of all time, Bessie Smith rightly earned the title of "The Empress of the Blues." Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of the day and still communicates easily to today's listeners (which is not true of any other singer from that early period). At a time when the blues...
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