Count Basie and His Orchestra: America’s #1 Band!: The Columbia Years

Count Basie and His Orchestra
America's #1 Band!: the Columbia Years

Count Basie would’ve celebrated his centennial next August if he were still alive. The band leader responsible for the swing movement of the Depression-era ’30s and the following decades was without a doubt one of the biggest components to jazz. His relationship with labels, as well as personnel, was always changing, so it comes as no surprise that his years with Columbia and various subsidiaries are collected here in an impressive style. From the opening notes of “Shoe Shine Boy” during what is known as “The Small Group Recordings”, Basie is able to showcase his talents over four CDs and some 90 songs. It might be a tad arduous for the newcomer to absorb all this at one or two sittings, but the collection and bonus book are great starters.

The first disc is divided into five areas, with Jimmy Rushing’s vocals on “Evenin'” being an early highlight. The swinging jazz resembles modern day acts such as Squirrel Nut Zippers, but the hiss on the recordings and olden means of recording only add to the songs’ luster. “Boogie Woogie (It May Be Wrong)” has early traces of blues and rock with Rushing again at the forefront. The era known as Basie’s Bad Boys is showcased next, with “I Ain’t Got Nobody” a tad distant in terms of sound, but the bass line and horns keep the tune be-bopping and head-bobbing along quite nicely. The same can be said for the catchy groove on the instrumental “Love Me or Leave Me”. “Live and Love Tonight” is another standout, but again the sound isn’t quite up to snuff. Given how much work was done by John Hammond to get them this polished, though, it’s an accomplishment.

The larger part of the first disc belongs to Count Basie and His All-American Rhythm Section. Beginning with “How Long Blues”, the swing is tamed just a tad as this slow moody piano-based blues ambles courtesy of Basie’s piano playing. This entire section is “Blues”, with each title ending in the word. “Royal Garden Blues” is a rousing little ditty, though with more punch than usual. These songs show just how magical Basie was, taking what is basically a similar pattern and reworking each tune with the core and critical supporting cast. “Farewell Blues” has Walter Page’s bass stealing Basie’s ivory and ebony thunder. Basie counters, though, with “Café Society Blues”, a rollicking display of his prowess. The Count Basie Octet rounds off the first disc with favorites “Neal’s Deal” and “You’re My Baby, You” returning to the great swinging sounds.

The second disc is divided into more of the “Small Group Recordings”, with the sound being crisp and sharp on the light “Song of the Islands” having more verve than most of the first disc. “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” and “I’ll Remember April” are some of the genre’s staples and Basie delivers the goods on these classics. What one notices, though, is that the swing and jump are notably absent on some tunes, particularly “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”. “One O’Clock Jump” rectifies that, though, with a bang, as does “I Ain’t Got Nobody”. Two-thirds of the second disc is Basie with his Orchestra, featuring Helen Humes singing à la Billie Holiday on “One Hour”. It’s possibly the best tune here, but “Taxi War Dance” is not too shabby either. There are two takes on “Miss Thing”, with the second a bit moodier and wilder than the first. “Pound Cake” and the subtle “Tickle Toe” are also strong.

Disc Three is another playful seventy-one minutes of swing, with Jo Jones usurped only by the large and rowdy horn section on “Five O’Clock Whistle”. A majority of the songs are elongated, just slightly, but it’s noticeable. Basie’s ability to get the most of his large orchestra is found on “Broadway”, each taking a brief spot to propel the song further. And unlike the work of some other big bands that will go unmentioned, each track has a fresh approach, sounding anything but stale. “The Jitters” is a prime example, starting off a tad slow before moving into high gear. But there are moments of relative calm, including “It’s Sand, Man” and “Harvard Blues”, the latter with Jimmy Rushing on lead vocal. The highlights are the gorgeous “Avenue C”, the near frantic “Mutton Leg”, and “Taps Miller” with some members of the orchestra whooping it up somewhat.

The second portion of this disc offers more of the same quality nostalgia, while disc four is a series of live snippets from various places, including a large chunk of performances from the Famous Door that were originally radio broadcasts. If there is a slight annoyance with this box set, it might come on this disc, as some songs such as “One O’Clock Jump” are presented twice, making it four times over the four discs. But the fact most of this material has never been released previously makes it worth the aggravation. Other tracks on earlier discs are also repeated without much variety as performances from the Panther Room, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Café Society Uptown are offered. It might be a strike against the complete packaging, but the excellent notes and book by Orrin Keepnews and the artwork are definitely a bonus. Tracks to seek out here are “Rock-A-Bye Basie” and “Swing, Brother, Swing”. For the true fans of Basie, this is a must, but for the newcomers, it might be best to seek out a shorter compilation. Solid nonetheless.