High times with the Count Basie Orchestra’s ‘High Voltage’ from Horch House

Count Basie is one of hundreds of artists thought to have lost much of his archive material in the 2008 Universal Studios fire. A 2019 New York Times Magazine exposé (‘The Day the Music Burned’) asserted that the fire destroyed between 118,000 and 175,000 audio master tapes belonging to Universal Music Group. Fortunately, his 1970 album High Voltage was released on MPS, the German jazz label and – fortunately again – Horch House has acquired the rights to reproduce a number of their titles. So here I am about to sit down with a recently-acquired tape that will (spoiler alert) blow my flippin’ socks off. But first, a bit of background.

The Count Basie Orchestra

William James ‘Count’ Basie (1904-1984) was – and still is – an American jazz legend. A musician (piano and organ), composer and bandleader, he formed the Count Basie Orchestra in 1935 and, amazingly, the big band is still going strong today, still recording and touring under the direction of Scotty Barnhart. Over the years, the Orchestra has appeared in every major concert hall and at every major jazz festival in the world, and has won 18 Grammy Awards (Basie was the first African-American to win a Grammy).

Count Basie Orchestra

Basie led the band for almost 50 years and made most of his albums with them, and he is credited with introducing several generations of listeners to the big band sound. The careers of many musicians flourished under Basie’s direction – more so than I realised, as a quick skim of Wikipedia reveals quite a list. It includes tenor saxophonists Lester Young (aka ‘Pres’ or ‘Prez’) and Herschel ‘Tex’ Evans, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, trombonist Al Grey (“the last of the big time plungers”), and singers Jimmy Rushing (the famous blues ‘shouter’), Helen Humes (who replaced the band’s previous singer… Billie Holiday), Thelma Carpenter, and Joe Williams (famed for his mastery of jazz, blues, and ballads and widely considered to be the finest jazz singer of his generation). So that’s some roll-call!

Basie at the piano in 1955, photographed by James J. Kriegsmann

At the same time I also discover that Basie is credited with a handful of jazz innovations including the use of two ‘split’ tenor saxophones, emphasizing the rhythm section, riffing with a big band, using arrangers to broaden the sound, and others. Which, again, I didn’t know but it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Check out Count Basie on Wikipedia, it’s an interesting read and gives a good flavour of the importance of his career, and of the man himself: “Basie is remembered by many who worked for him as being considerate of musicians and their opinions, modest, relaxed, fun-loving, dryly witty, and always enthusiastic about his music.” And you can read all about the Orchestra past and present at www.thecountbasieorchestra.com.

In March this year the BBC screened a new documentary, Count Basie Through His Own Eyes, which sets out to“uncover for the first time the private passions and ambitions that inspired the world-famous bandleader and pianist”. It features home movies, photo albums, letters and interviews with personal friends and sounds truly fascinating, but sadly I didn’t catch it; let’s hope BBC Four re-streams it!

High Voltage

High Voltage (subtitled Basic Basie Vol. 2) was recorded at A&R Studios in New York in January 1970, produced by Sonny Lester. In the 1960s, the Count Basie Orchestra had recorded with star vocalists including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, while also producing a number of purely instrumental works – of which this is a very fine example. Previously, Basie had engaged the acclaimed Cuban composer/arranger Chico O´Farrill to arrange the music for concept albums such as Basie Meets Bond and Basie´s Beatle Bag (both 1966), transforming them into what have been described as “crossover gems”. What we have on High Voltage is a repertoire of jazz standards, and here O´Farrill demonstrates his affinity to Basie´s big band sound.

At this point, the Orchestra was a 17-piece band and, for this album, Basie is said to have specifically chosen pieces that the band had never recorded before – which can’t have been easy, since they had covered a seriously impressive span of jazz history in their 30-plus years!

First impressions: the unboxing

Right from the start, there’s no doubting that this is a high quality product on every level. The packaging and presentation are exquisite and quite frankly set an industry standard (alongside Open Reel Records’ beautifully produced tapes). The tape’s box is beautiful and feels utterly luxurious and as soon as I open it, I’m immediately drawn into the included materials. I feel a bit like I’m delving into a treasure chest!

There are four colour photographs, beautifully reproduced on art-quality glossy photo paper, of the ‘original’ LP release. These show the front and rear covers and also the gatefold inner faces with English and German language sleeve notes about the recording. Note: I’ve written ‘original’ LP release in inverted commas there because the ‘original original’ release was designated MPS 15285, of which a very early reissue was redesignated CRM 744.

There are also full-size colour photographs of the original master tape boxes. Call me a geek, but I really do love to hold these in my hands. Somehow I feel closer to holding the original master tape itself, which is something I particularly love. The fact that they’re always covered in handwritten scrawls really adds to that feeling of ‘being there’, of going back in time and getting a slice of musical history. Besides, provenance is everything in the world of recordings and the subsequent media you might purchase.

So, what do we learn? Well, the original recording was made using Dolby A noise reduction at a speed of 30ips, so it uses the AES EQ curve (at 30ips there is only one EQ curve: AES; it’s only at 15ips and 7.5ips that we have a choice of NAB and CCIR – also known, confusingly, as IEC I & IEC II).

There are two sheets (again beautifully printed, this time on high quality textured art paper). One is a Horch House tape handling / advice sheet and the second is an information sheet with track listing, the band personnel, the serial number of your particular copy, date of your copy’s production and technical specifications:

  • Tape: Recording the Masters SM468 (archival quality mastering tape).
  • Format: ¼ inch, 2-track, stereo
  • Recording level (magnetic flux): 510nWb/m
  • Separation track: 0.75mm
  • Recording speed: 38cm/sec / 15ips.
  • Equalisation: CCIR

I do have two small ‘gripes’ though (which is probably me being a total geek – and ‘gripe’ is probably too strong a word)… the outer box, beautifully high quality though it is (and it really is), doesn’t fit into my normal tape shelving. It measures a sizeable 327mm x 327mm x 50mm so it does just squeeze into my vinyl LP shelving but I’d prefer to file it alongside the rest of my tapes (I have many of the first generation Horch House tapes which came in beautifully produced boxes of the more standard 280mm x 280mm size). The other thing is that the outer box isn’t labelled with the tape’s title and so you have to open the box to find out which tape is inside – which is fine for now since I only have one box of this design, but if Horch House are going to applying this design concept across the board, it’d be useful to put some markers on the outside of the box.

But still, maybe I’m being overly picky and, as I said, the quality of presentation here is indisputably a standard-setter.

As mentioned in the above tech spec, the tapes are Recording the Masters’ superb SM468 archival quality master tape, supplied on a pair of excellent quality Feinwerktechnik aluminium reels from Germany.

Sitting down to listen

A quick note on operating levels to start: since Horch House have produced this tape at a very healthy 510nWb/m I was half expecting to have to lower the repro level accordingly. As it turned out, on my Studer A812, which is calibrated to 355nWb/m, the levels are spot on. This tape would be equally happy on a 320nEWb/m calibrated machine.

I kick off with a scan of the track listing (shown right). What we have here are 12 tracks, all classic jazz standards, though I notice that each of them is quite short (only one is more than four minutes). So it’s not a long album in time terms, but in enjoyment terms, boy, do you know you’ve heard it! This is big band jazz at its finest and, with sound quality this strong, this precise, this spacious, what you get is a fantastic live music experience.

Right from the off, this is very true, very familiar Basie style. It’s the ‘swingiest’ swing, so dynamic it’s almost incendiary – jumping, groovy, the king of swing! Track 1 is ‘Chicago’, in which the piano and bass are both solid and tuneful, both beautifully captured in their fullness: centre stage, perfectly timed, and then the horns and brass kick in with terrific dynamism. And wham, the sax leaps out dead centre stage. A cracking start!

In track after track, the brass and reed instruments are so clearly and precisely delineated. The differing textures are profound, there’s not a hint of vagueness even when an instrument isn’t centre stage; one gets the impression that all 17 musicians in the band are each captured with startling clarity. And it’s physical: the brass plays across the width of the stage, with Count Basie’s piano rooted right in the centre.

The driving rhythm never lets up, and you almost feel you could trust your life with it, which frees up the trumpets, trombones, saxophones and clarinets to dance and swing around the rhythm laid down by bass, drums and piano.

The drums are particularly worthy of note: they’re certainly not ‘in your face’ but are bang-on the note with impeccable, ‘just right’ timing. Neither leading nor trailing by so much as a fraction of a beat, they’re in perfect synch with, and add just the right weight to, the rhythm of the piano and bass.

At the end of track 3, ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’, the last piano note hangs on the sustain, holding the space in your listening room… and then as track 4 ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’ starts with the piano, it cuts back in. The sound is sensational, massive, and yet intimate.

Chico O’Farrill

Jazz reviewer Scott Yanow wrote a very brief review of the vinyl version of the album for AllMusic.com (where you can also listen to some track samples) and, while I can see what he means, I’m not sure if I completely agree. Referring to the brevity of the tracks he said that the album’s arranger Chico O’Farrill “should have given the band more space in which to explore these tunes”. There’s certainly a sense of wanting more when you really enjoy something and yes, the tracks here are shorter versions than the ones we may be used to hearing. But when you listen to the album on master tape copy, there’s so much in there that, in a way, I wonder whether more might’ve become too much? I’m thinking about when you have a really high quality meal with a fine balance of flavours that work perfectly together… you don’t want a massive plateful or to fill yourself completely up on it. Rather, you want your palate to stay fresh enough to really relish every detail; then at the end you want to feel deeply satisfied but leave the table feeling like you could’ve eaten a bit more.

Sticking with the food metaphor, Count Basie wrote in his autobiography, “I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter.” That’s it. The band really swings here, and yet it sounds almost effortless.

High Voltage scores a high five

Conclusion, this is one of the most pleasing tapes in my collection. There’s nothing not to love here, it’s fabulous music and the sound is incredible: tuneful, dynamic, textured, and so very lifelike in terms of portrayal. In fact I’d even go as far as to say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard the various wind instruments so clearly defined, separated but playing impeccably together. The flute in ‘Getting Sentimental’, Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ sax in ‘Bewitched’, jeez, that left me bewitched that’s for sure. Let me be just as clear: I LOVE this tape!

It’s priced at €398 and, short though it is, I honestly can’t grumble in any way. The fact of the matter is, alongside my other Horch House tapes (I have 9 albums from Horch House, on a total of 17 reels), I’d say that on the strength of these tapes, if you’re considering a Horch Horch recording, my advice would be don’t hesitate.