Not long ago, I heard “Count Basie – The Complete Decca
Recordings: 1937-1939,” a three-CD set released in 1992
on the Decca Jazz label. It chronicles the years between
1937 and 1939, when Basie (1904-1984) made his first
big band studio recordings. This was also the period when
Basie’s orchestra began to achieve recognition and acclaim.
Band members included such Jazz stalwarts as Lester Young,
Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, and Harry “Sweets” Edison.
Although this ensemble was famous for its ability to “swing”
like no other, the actual arrangements tended to lack the
sophistication and musical colors from the same period,
found in the music of Duke Ellington (1899-1974), and
certain other big bands. In fact, Steven Lasker’s informative
essay in the accompanying liner notes indicated that Basie
would often simplify and “doctor” the charts provided by
outside arrangers. An offshoot of this practice gave his
ensemble of more than 13 players the flexibility of a
“small group,” which was probably ideal when playing
for a dancing audience.
Speaking of a “small group,” 12 of the 63 tracks on
these CDs are performed just with Basie and his rhythm
section, consisting of guitarist Freddie Green, bassist
Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones. This configuration
made it a lot easier to appreciate Basie’s often
underrated pianistic skills.
In addition to the aforementioned instrumentalists,
singers Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes are featured
on six of the tracks from 1939. These sessions are
dated in the accompanying booklet, and each of the
three CDs is devoted to a single year, in chronological
order. Typical of the era, the tracks had running times
between two and one-half and three and one-quarter
minutes. They included such numbers as “Honeysuckle
Rose,” “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Doggin’ Around,” and
“Let Me Dream.”
It was no mean feat to locate the sources for all
of these recordings! The digital remastering, processing
and equalization involved were handled with great care.
The result is more than three hours of surprisingly good,
high-fidelity recordings. This set is an important release
of a major ensemble from the Swing era.