(4 out of 5 stars)
"I was playing my Benny Carter CD recorded with Gary Giddins' American Jazz Orchestra tonight and reading the interview inside. Giddins asks Carter, 80 at the time of the recording in 1987, about the generally accepted belief that Carter and Johnny Hodges emerged as the major voices in jazz alto at the same time, and Carter says to him, ""Well, I don't know. You see, there were many saxophone players that I heard in those days that I never hear about now, and nobody else hears about, and you wouldn't know their names if they were mentioned, because they didn't record and they just weren't heard by enough people." Carter might as well have been talking about Buster, one of the last of the Blue Devils (1926-1932), an ace arranger and alto player who later took Charlie Parker under his tutelege in those post-Blue Devil days and put the early muscle in the wings of the fledgling Yardbird. Buster hooked up with Bill Basie mostly as an arranger after the Bennie Moten band split off from the Blue Devils and then fragmented. They began touring around smoking up joints in one of those territory bands that rumbled around Missouri, Texas and those areas back in the 1930s, virtuosic, juggular-grabbing swing bands with a lot more scrapple in them than their sophisticated Eastern counterparts. Basie took off to make it big in New York (he made his name as a Kansas City man, but he grew up in Red Bank, N.J.) and Buster could have gone with him, but chose to stay close to home. The rest, for Basie anyway, is history. While the Count became a glimmering twin to Ellington as royalty in the jazz firmament (the Duke and Count), Buster Smith kicked the can in the backyard with Andy Kirk, Claude Hopkins and finally his own band in '37, which helped set Parker in motion. Buster played up about until the end (you can see him a little in the documentary film "Last of the Blue Devils"), but except nothing-much-of-note in the Moten band recordings, he never went into the studio. Then Gunther Schuller went on a quixotic journey (retold in the liner notes) to find and record him in 1958. Smith was so unreliable, this session didn't get made until a year later. You can feel the encroachment of King Curtis and rock n' roll in here, but I'm telling you something right now, the record swings like there's no tomorrow. Yes, it flags in a few sloppy sections, but that is part of the live feel of the session. This was loose and swinging stuff. There is tremendous horn work going on here, from Buster and Charles Gillum on mute trumpet. This is big, classic riff jazz, but also breathtakingly tart balladry(Weill and & Anderson's "September Song," Smith's own "Late Late"). The production is terrific, with a genuine crackle in the horns. You can feel the reeds (the CD re-release is on HDCD and my player has the processor -- but you don't need that to enjoy this). I first got this album as a boy breaking a balloon at a Lion's Club fair midway game. I didn't open it for probably eight years. I haven't stopped playing it since. Great music falls through the cracks so often; great players, formative to the music, are lost to time and the lack of a document to place them rightly. All histories are not definitive because they tend to distill what took place to its essence and eventually the odd characters that pulled and pushed and shaped and shifted even in the nearly most imperceptable ways lose their rightful place when their champions stop talking. All that is left are the books to lie...But one thing I do know is this CD is a killer."