Will the hundredth anniversary of Count Basie’s birth in 2004 be noted as elaborately, and as profitably, as was Duke Ellington’s in 1999? How could that be possible, without the neo-trad publicity juggernaut of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra behind an Ellington tribute, or without tons of books weighing in on the subject, some lightweights retreading familiar ground and very few heavyweights taking the time to uncover previously unknown facts about Ellington? Albert Murray’s Good Morning Blues
will remain the definitive biography of Count Basie, better written than any others could hope to be and revelatory in its exhaustive prodding to find out more from this most private of band leaders. And Columbia/Legacy’s Count Basie & His Orchestra: America’s #1 Band
will remain, when all is said and done, the most diligently produced recorded tribute to the spirit of Count Basie’s music that captivated audiences, particularly in the years 1936 to 1951 covered in this box set.
These were the years when Basie was finding his own voice on the piano and emerging from the status of a regional phenomenon to that of a worldwide name, thanks to producer John Hammond’s discovery of Basie’s band via a late-night Kansas City radio that he heard in Chicago. So inspired was Hammond of the Basie group’s music and so determined was he to record it that he circumvented Basie’s Decca contract by documenting on the Vocalion label Basie’s quintet as Jones-Smith Inc., named after trumpeter Carl "Tatti" Smith and drummer Jo Jones. It’s a good thing. For Lester Young’s solo on the Jones-Smith Inc. version of "Shoe Shine Boy" is his first recorded solo. And, two of the four tracks feature blues shouter Jimmy Rushing, who also went on from that point in 1936 to become one of the most influential originals in jazz.
Speaking of influential singers, Billie Holiday appears on three of the tracks on the fourth disk during airchecks at the Savoy Ballroom and the Meadowbrook Lounge, accompanied by such Basie stalwarts as Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Walter Page, Lester Young, Buck Clayton and Jack Washington. The other singer to appear occasionally with the Basie orchestra was Helen Humes, recommended by the Basie guru, Hammond.
Reissue producer Orrin Keepnews has distilled Basie’s music from this period into four groups: Jones-Smith Inc.; Basie’s small groups; the Basie orchestra; and restoration of live radio broadcasts from 1937 to 1941. Even though it appears that Basie and the musicians in his groups arrived fully developed, their famous rhythmic sizzle already in place, the chronological progress through the disks allows for the growing perception of Basie’s growth throughout this period as he gained more resources, recognition and confidence.
Despite the ever-present difficulties of keeping a band together, as well as the fall in popularity for big bands, Basie kept on, reconfiguring his groups as needed. Eventually, he paired down his group to an octet--but what an octet it was! With names like Clark Terry, Charlie Rouse, Serge Chaloff and Buddy DeFranco--and with arrangements by Neal Hefti--the octet was an outlet for Basie to continue in the same spirit but without the expenses of a big band.
Even though Basie started out as a Fats Waller advocate, throughout the series of recordings in the box set his style pares down to the implicit swing contained within the spaces of his minimalistic note placement, as suggested to him by Bennie Moten. Loren Schoenberg’s comprehensive, analytical and well-written liner notes propound his belief that the person responsible for the Basie rhythm section’s famous sound wasn’t Jo Jones or Basie himself, but rather bassist Walter Page. As Schoenberg put it, Page taught Basie and Jones to "bring the volume down and the intensity up" "as if they were breathing the beat." With Schoenberg’s notes providing previously unconsidered insights, the nuggets of the band’s unexpected delights become all the more evident as one listens to the recordings.
Containing elucidating contrasts between the studio sessions and the airchecks, between the free swing of the small groups and the signature elasticity of the orchestra, between the astounding tangential nature of some of Lester Young’s solos and the locked-in propulsion of the rhythm section, between the traditional references to the big bands before his and the modern development of new approaches to the music, Count Basie & His Orchestra: America’s #1 Band
presents in elaborate and fascinating detail the paradoxes of Count Basie’s groups that merged into a unified, inimitable drive that remained irresistible throughout his career.