Vanguard's Jazz Showcase series of albums, mainly dating from the 1954-1958 period, are an absolutely key part of the history of the record company, but also the history of the legendary John Hammond who probably had a greater influence on American music that any other individual then or now. Hammond began as a fledgling producer in the 1930s, working with some of the biggest names in the business, including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Always a deeply involved man, he also wrote for publications like the New York Times, and it was in this paper in November 1953 that he penned a long article querying why jazz recordings were not granted the same care as classical ones. The piece led him into contact with the Solomon Brothers, who ran Vanguard, and before long they had engaged him to oversee and produce their new Jazz Showcase series. Hammond was greatly impressed with their attention to absolute quality of sound for the product, and the new series quickly became a big commercial success with nearly forty albums being issued over the next four years.
This wonderful album compiles tracks from four different albums of that period: “The Jo Jones Special”, “Buckin' The Blues”, “Jo Jones Plus Two”, and “A Night At Count Basie's” (live recordings). Hammond had long championed the Basie Orchestra in his column in Downbeat magazine, and for these four albums he set out to include as many of Basie's old musicians in various configurations as he could. Their shared playing roots ensured that the musicianship and feel were totally complementary, making it hard to pick out tracks that stand above the rest, though mention should be given to the opening track here, ‘Shoe Shine Boy’, which is a joyous concoction led by Basie himself on piano. Other players include trombonist Vic Dickenson, drummer Jo Jones, guitarist Freddie Green, bass player Walter Page, trumpeter Buck Clayton and singer Joe Williams on the live recordings. In fact, the quality of the material is so strong that each player deserves a name check. The whole set features variety as well as supreme quality with Jones' drum work on ‘Caravan’ and ‘Old Man River’ contrasting with Lucky Thompson's smoky tenor sax on the over six-minute ‘Lover Man’ and the late-night club feel on the title track, one of three recorded at Basie's own small Harlem night club in October 1956.
Mention also has to be made of the fine sleeve notes by Vanguard's long-time producer/A&R man Samuel Charters, who tells the story of John Hammond and this particular album's genesis in full and authoritative detail, greatly enhancing the listening pleasure by providing the full context. Listening to the extremely well ordered compilation, it is difficult to believe that this was not a cohesive album recorded by the same players over a few days, but the shared link with Basie that many of them have means that things just move along so well throughout the dozen tracks.