© William P Gottlieb, Library of Congress

Best Jazz Albums
Big Band


The first recordings by this trend setting orchestra that set new and uniquely individual standards because of the highly superior improvisors including Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, Benny Morton and, naturally, the “All American Rhythm Section”, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones and leader Basie. The arrangements (many of the classics by trombonist / guitarist Eddie Durham) and the execution of these arrangements, make these recordings some of the greatest during the Swing Era or of any era. Top that off with two top vocalists with their display of blues and pop tunes, Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes.

Featured Track: Swingin’ The Blues

Just one of the many classic Basie Decca sides that stayed in the Basie book for many years. Basie starts in and then solos by both Pres and Herschel plus the newcomer in the band Sweets Edison are showcased and then the band trades riffs with some magnificent drum breaks by Jo Jones.


Without a doubt one of the greatest bands of all time. The big band was Ellington’s musical palette and he, along with Billy Strayhorn, arranged three minute masterpieces that will live forever. Riding the popularity of the Swing Era this band was able to produce big hits for the everyman (“Take The ‘A’ Train”, “Perdido”, “Flamingo”, “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”) for example) and produce recordings that were far ahead of the time (“Ko-Ko”, “Bojangles”, “Blue Serge”). They swung collectively and individually had some of the greatest jazz stars of any era including Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges.

Featured Track: Cotton Tail

“Cotton Tail” is one of those tunes they used to call “flag wavers” and it is one of Duke’s hardest swinging recordings: Ben Webster’s much imitated solo is an opus in of itself; next Ellington proves why he was in a league by himself as an arranger as the band plays as one while Jimmy Blanton’s bass propels the orchestra; after short interludes by Harry Carney and Ellington there’s more brilliant writing, this time for the saxes, before a wild ride-out that climaxes with a drop in dynamics to repeat the initial theme. And we’re left breathless.


This iconic event from January 16, 1938 is one of the greatest recorded concerts in history. The unparalleled band of Benny Goodman, crowned “The King of Swing”, was riding high as the greatest commercial and musical organization of the Swing Era. His sidemen boasted of such superstars as Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jess Stacy, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. Martha Tilton sings her hits and this classic LP is presented as it happened with not only the big band but the Goodman Quartet and an all-star jam session with members of BG’s band, Ellingtonians and Basie-ites on “Honeysuckle Rose”.

Featured Track: Sing, Sing, Sing

Perfection from start to finish is “Sing, Sing, Sing”, still recognized as one of the cornerstones of not only the Goodman band but of swing. As much as the studio Victor version is of the highest quality, the Carnegie Hall version has become just as iconic (Harry James is dynamic) plus we get the extra pleasure of hearing a masterpiece of a solo by pianist Jess Stacy (a piano solo was not part of the original 12” 78). The finale with BG and Krupa’s duet was so popular it was to become common practice for many bands to incorporate in their own arrangements .


The Stan Kenton Orchestra was always a forward-thinking organization ever since its start in 1941. They had a couple of pop hits during the Swing Era but mostly it was Kenton’s instrumentals (arrangements from both Kenton and Pete Rugolo) that found favor with jazz fans and musicians alike during the mid and late 1940s. This 1956 Capitol re-recreation of Kenton’s biggest sellers during the ‘40s has been critically acclaimed and in many cases rival and often surpasses the original 78s. Mel Lewis is absolutely superb on drums and is a main source of having Maynard Ferguson, Vinnie Dean, Carl Fontana and other soloists make this one of the great big band jazz albums of all time.

Featured Track: Intermission Riff

“Intermission Riff” (based on a Gerald Wilson arrangement for Jimmie Lunceford’s band called “Yard Dog Mazurka”) is a prime example of the Kenton band taking one of their best known recordings and slowing it down for the Hi-Fi album for a completely fresh new look. Vido Musso’s tenor is a highlight but the deliciously melodic solo by trombonist Carl Fontana brings down the house. Add to it some high notes in the trumpet section by Maynard Ferguson and Mel Lewis’s drums just before the final chorus and you’ve got a perfect take.


Many will say that the 1945-1947 Woody Herman big band that recorded for Columbia (the First Herd) or the late 1940s band that recorded for Capitol (the Second Herd) was Woody’s finest ensembles, but an argument can also be made that the Thundering Herd of the mid 1960s rivals any of Herman’s always progressive big bands. This LP is an incredible display of power, solo musicianship and band cohesiveness that is rarely come upon. In an era when jazz individualism was thought to have hit a low (excluding of course, Coltrane, Dolphy and others), this incredibly tight big band roared with excitement and brilliant soloing by Sal Nistico, Bill Chase, Jake Hanna, Phil Wilson and Nat Pierce.

Featured Track: Apple Honey

Another one of those “flag wavers” this live re-visiting of Woody’s hit “Apple Honey” (named for the brand of tobacco used on Woody’s CBS radio show for Old Gold cigarettes) is taken at a much faster tempo and is a tour de force for tenorman Sal Nistico. Jake Hanna’s drums keeps things moving, Nistico comes back for a few words, Woody wails, Bill Chase punctuates with some high notes and then the band drops tempo and flips out the audience with a bizarre ending to an incredible ride.