In the late 1950s and early 1960s, right around the time that Count Basie's New Testament Band was hitting its stride, another band was also at the top of its game—the Harry James Orchestra. The albums that James recorded from 1958 until 1961 were exceptional examples of updated swing—thanks to a confluence of events, including the availability of top players and arrangements with punch and swagger.
In many respects, the James band wouldn't have been as whip-tight and punchy if not for the influence of the Basie band, which had raised its game dramatically. So while Basie had Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Neal Hefti and Quincy Jones writing arrangements in '58, James had charts by Jack Haskell, Ernie Wilkins, Bill Holman, Neal Hefti, Juan Tizol, Bob Florence and Jack Mathias, among others.
For whatever reason, James tends to be overlooked during this period and even in the 1940s and early 1950s. His had a more modern band in the mid-1940s than most of the majors and in 1949, he led one of the finest bands of the year. I truly can't think of another orchestra that could top his U.S. Navy Presents band in '49—with James, Neal Hefti, Nick Buono, Pinky Savitt, Ralph Osborn (tp), Carl Ziggy" Elmer, Dave Robbins, Chuck Preble (tb), Juan Tizol (v-tb,arr), Willie Smith (as,vcl), Al Pellegrini (cl,as), Corky Corcoran (ts), Sam Sachelle (ts,bar), Bob Poland (bar), Bruce McDonald (p), Tiny Timbrell (g), Joe Mondragon (b) and Frank Bode (d).
By the late 1958, with the 12-inch LP in full swing and the introduction of stereo, the stakes at labels jumped, pushing producers to round up the strongest bands and record them as widely as possible to maximize the new stereo format. James' labels during this period were Capitol and MGM, and James had his pick of the finest artists in Hollywood.
Let's take New James, for example, recorded for Capitol in April 1958. The band included James (tp,arr), Nick Buono, Ollie Mitchell and Bob Rolfe (tp), Ray Sims and Bob Edmondson (tb), Ernie Tack (btb), Willie Smith (as), Herb Lorden (cl,as), Sam Firmature (ts), Bob Poland (ts,bar), Ernie Small (bar), Jack Perciful (p), Dennis Budimir (g), Russ Phillips (b) and Jackie Mills (d), with arrangements by Jack Haskell, Ernie Wilkins, Bill Holman, Neal Hefti.
Don't recognize many of the names? Most were Hollywood studio monsters. Ernie Tack eventually wound up on The Tonight Show when it moved West Ray Sims was Zoot Sims' brother and Sam Firmature was a Westlake College of Music grad. James wanted the arrangements during this period to be as challenging as possible—which was in keeping with his own show-off, former circus-trumpeter style. In effect, he was trying to one-up Basie. And he hired guys who could handle the charts.
The James band during this period has been eclipsed by bands led by Basie, Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. While each served up its own brand of magnificence, James produced more consistently brilliant tracks than the others. Don't get me wrong, the three other bands mentioned were spectacular but not on every track recorded. By contrast, virtually everything James recorded during this period was an uncompromising swinging gem. Big band music during this four-year period didn't get much better.
These five albums illustrate my points perfectly... New James (1958) Harry's Choice (1958) Harry James Today! (1960) Spectacular Sound (1961) Plays Neal Hefti (1961)
JazzWax tracks: New James and Harry's Choice can be found on Gene Krupa & Harry James: The Capitol Vaults here. Harry James Today! was released with Plays Neal Hefti and tracks from Spectacular Sound on Harry James Today! (Fresh Sound). I'm not sure if it's still in print here but you might find copies at eBay.
As for that '49 band, you'll find tracks on There They Go: Harry James and His Orchestra with Arrangements by Neal Hefti (Fresh Sound) here.
JazzWax clip: This clip taped in Japan in 1964 falls a little later than the years covered in my post, but I wanted you to see and hear rare footage of Joe Riggs, Ray Sims and Corky Corcoran...