Count Basie and His Orchestra
America’s #1 Band: The Columbia Years
Four CDs’ worth, and I don’t claim to love all of it. Especially but not exclusively as it reaches the ’50s, it can be sleek and unforgiving. But most of the time it’s breathtaking in both ensemble complexity and individual virtuosity—Lester Young! Jo Jones! Billie Holiday!—and the four 1936 small-group recordings that start things swinging are legendary for a reason. Also, it’s encyclopedic—two decades of evolution from combo to big band to combo and big band again, with a disc of radio transcriptions. Plus an 88-page booklet full of warm, detailed descriptions by Loren Schoenberg, who gives props up top to bassist Walter Page. With his minimalist commitment to big beat and constructed song, Basie was our guy. After Decca’s Best of Early Basie, this.
Now That’s Chicago!
This profit-taking ’20s comp is so committed to its Academy Award–winning tie-in that it doesn’t bother listing musicians on the back. Good thing—totemic designations like Cab Calloway, Sophie Tucker, and Jack Teagarden might distract you. Name artists aren’t why it works, except insofar as they too generated the hoop-de-doo novelties that gave the Jazz Age its name when Armstrong and Ellington were still rumors in the prevailing culture. Armstrong and Ellington were better, by miles. But the fun here is of a sort rare on CD, and it’s worth getting to know.