The best of Count Basie: Five essential albums by the big band leader

The only problem with compiling a list of five essential Count Basie albums is narrowing it down to that number. It’d be a lot easier to list his 10, 15 or 20 greatest recordings.

Nobody could swing like Basie, especially when playing Neal Hefti arrangements, and nobody, other than Duke Ellington, kept as many star soloists together at one time. And nobody but Basie could say as much on the piano with so few notes.

For almost five decades, the Count Basie Orchestra was on top of the heap, a position it richly deserved.

These five albums aren’t just essential to any good jazz collection… they are almost compulsory.

The Complete Decca Recordings (1992)

You can’t have a Count Basie collection without going back to the beginning. Fresh out of Kansas City, the Basie band took Manhattan by storm in 1937. This three-CD compilation celebrates the band’s legendary Decca studio recordings made in New York when it was a hard-driving swing outfit on its way to becoming an American institution. The band arrived on the scene with more future jazz all-stars than any dance band in history: Lester Young and Herschel Evans on tenor saxes, Earl Warren on alto, Buck Clayton on trumpet, and Benny Morton on trombone. Within a year it had added Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet, Dicky Wells on trombone and Chu Berryon tenor sax. And on 59 of the 63 tracks there is one of the most celebrated rhythm sections in swing history: guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones, with Basie on the piano. With vocals by Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing, the collection includes evergreens such as One O’Clock JumpTopsy, Jumpin’ at the Woodside and Jive at Five.

April in Paris (1957)

The Basie band’s first album for Verve is important on a number of levels. Not only did it once again put Count Basie’s name front and centre with the record-buying public, it also reinvigorated a fading big band scene. Not only that, but its title track, arranged by Wild Bill Davis, became an instant classic and one of the greatest jazz tracks from any era. The album was recorded in two sessions in July of 1955 and January of 1956, and featured Basie stalwarts such as Joe Newman on trumpet, Frank Foster and Frank Wess on alto saxes, Freddie Green on guitar and Sonny Payne on drums. And what tunes! As well as the popular title track there was Foster’s Shiny Stockings, Green’s Corner Pocket, and Ernie Wilkins’ Sweetie Cakes. Although recorded in mono, the sound is exceptional, as are the performances. Among jazz critics this is considered to be the Basie band’s best ever album.

The Atomic Mr. Basie (1958)

Originally this album was simply called Basie, with the leader’s name in blue lettering sitting above a colour photo of a giant mushroom cloud on the cover. It was recorded at Capitol’s New York studios in 1958 and became a double winner that year — for best performance, group and best performance by a dance band — at the inaugural Grammy Awards. Neal Hefti wrote and arranged all of the original release’s 11 powerhouse tracks, including L’il Darlin’Flight of the Foo BirdsWhirlybird and Splanky — all of which have become big band standards. This is great stuff and deserves to be in your record collection every bit as much as April in Paris.

Count Basie at Newport (1957)

This live album was recorded for Verve before 8,000 fans at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1957, and issued in time for Christmas that year. The sitting members of the band were joined by some of the original Basie crew that knocked New York on its ear in 1937, including tenorman Lester Young, drummer Jo Jones and vocalist Jimmy Rushing. Later in the program, singer Joe Williams shows up to perform some of his best-known tunes including Roll ‘Em, Pete and Alright, Okay You Win. One of the highlights is a nine-minute version of the band’s theme, One O’Clock Jump, featuring Young and Illinois Jacquet on tenors and Roy Eldridge on trumpet; another is the Ernie Wilkins original Swingin’ at Newport.

Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First (1962)

Recorded for Frank Sinatra’s own Reprise label in Hollywood in 1962, this album is so good it has to be included on any essential guide to either Sinatra or Basie. All of the arrangements were done by Neal Hefti, whose charts always seemed to bring out the best in the Basie band. Highlights include My Kind of Girl, Learnin’ the Blues, and the real gem, I Won’t Dance. Incidentally, Frank’s personal accompanist, Bill Miller, plays piano on Pennies from Heaven instead of Basie. Several other Basie-Sinatra collaborations were recorded after the success of this album, including Sinatra at the Sands, but this one remains the best.

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