Review - America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years

Artist: Count Basie

By revisiting the essential concept of a box set, "America's #1 Band" provides a surprisingly progressive look at some very old music. Rather than a straightforwardly chronological presentation of Basie's groundbreaking swing and big-band work, the compilers plainly acknowledge that the Count worked in two distinctive formats: small groups and big bands. The latter could swing just as hard as the former, and the sheer sonic power of a large group made the impact that much more impressive. Financial reality, however, often precluded paying a dozen or so band members on a nightly basis, so a sizeable amount of Basie's touring (and recording) work was done with a small group. So there are essentially three compilations here: the first runs through 30 small-group selections, the second is orchestra recordings, and the third chronicles radio broadcasts of both. Sonically, the collection is flawless (even legendary recordings from '36 shine) and the ever-volatile combination of Basie's reserved piano style and Lester Young's pathologically flamboyant tenor is still exciting some 50-plus years later.

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