The German language has picked up the word “Sampler” and misuses it to refer to any anthology, a point missed by the translator of Thomas Fitterling’s decent book Thelonious Monk. This CD is, however, a sampler of the period of the earlier Basie recordings on the Columbia label, only fourteen titles (less than on some vinyl issues) all drawn from the mighty 4-CD set Jason MacNeil reviewed on this site (December 2003). The last eight titles were recorded live, some with at least acceptable sound, some with better. “Swing, Brother, Swing” is a Billie Holiday feature (no personnel details are given—and this is the best sound in which I’ve heard anything of that 1937 Savoy Ballroom date, when she was the Basie band’s lady singer).
There’s one live title with a tenor saxophonist I can’t identify by ear but suspect might be Don Byas. The original Basie band had a Texan called Herschel Evans who died of heart disease at only thirty and missed being on the 1939 Columbia recordings. He’d a big impact on Dexter Gordon and Ike Quebec (who delivered Evans’s ballad “Blue and Sentimental” as the title track of one of his best Blue Note albums).
The live recordings also show the great trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison at his best. On the most astonishing live performance here, Edison contributes to a chain of solos which opens with an extended one from the great Lester Young and concludes with another by the same man. In both cases Young half- parodies one of Edison’s specialties, a drawling or slurred entirely across-the-beat business which swings away from the performance’s overall tempo, whether rapid or medium pace. Studio dates hardly indicate the important case of musicians playing off against each other, which the advent of private recording equipment saved for us from a radio broadcast. Edison himself remembered some particularly impressive solos performed live which did get recorded. He’d every right to be proud of them.
The six studio takes include the 1936 small group “Shoe Shine Boy” from the sole isolated pre-Decca contract date, with Lester Young’s recorded debut. I’m not sure the dubbing of that item is as clear as it might be, but the balance brings out very vividly the sound of Walter Page’s bass, forgotten and historically important and also worth bassists checking on. The permanently installed Basie guitarist Freddie Green was always spoken of as the unique component of the revolutionary All American Rhythm Section, and after him the drummer Jo Jones. Entirely without virtuosity Page had a valuably individual way of swinging a band which later bassists had to match. It’s amazing to hear his pioneering work so clearly in this particular music.
Like the 1939 small group masterpiece “Lester Leaps In” (divine!), the remaining four (all big band) studio titles were from Basie’s return to the Columbia company after his most individual and to me most interesting period (for him inadequately remunerative, ripped off on a rashly concluded Decca contract for 1937-‘39).
They were rough, they were a regional band with a strong bluesy Kansas City accent and a spontaneity seldom matched by any band’s studio recordings. Even some studio-recorded climaxes for the whole band depended on the individual hornmen’s ingenuity. By 1939 and the Columbia contract, the ensemble was much more rehearsed and it had acquired a library of sheet music arrangements. Something in a series labelled “Hot” ought, as a matter of consistency, to have had more of that—“Blow Top” is a performance which comes to mind. The live recordings do, however, demonstrate the spontaneous ingenuity which endured when management had removed roughness and rendered the work of ensemble playing less nerve-wracking. That was, however, the foundation of all Basie bands, a category into which Edison admitted the latterday fearsomely drilled Illinois Jacquet organisation. It was forever very hot!
This CD isn’t being marketed exactly as a sampler, which raises that question about the choice and balance of selections. Hep and other (including bargain-price) labels have issued more generously filled single CDs of the same sort of Basie, though some bargain firms have bootlegged out-of-copyright music from earlier reissues by companies who deserve the money for having done the work. For links on this latter topic, see www.musicandarts.com. Nothing wrong with the music on this CD, just slightly sloppily compiled in relation to its official designation. When I was a schoolboy and didn’t know the live recordings here existed, what wouldn’t I have done to hear any of them! I suspect there’s a plot to sell this (a) as a casual purchase, (b) as a carrot to attract to the 4-CD set buyers who have long had reissues of the studio-recorded stuff. Et cetera. The playing time’s too damned short considering the wealth of stuff from which its fourteen tracks were drawn. But:
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.