Sunday, January 14, 2001

11-CD set swings through Wills' career

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The criticisms of Ken Burns' Jazz have focused on artists the PBS documentary left out (e.g., Nat ""King'' Cole). But the urban-centric Jazz also missed the many jazz offshoots sprouting between the coasts.

        Perhaps the most glaring omission was Western Swing, a jazz-based style blending everything from blues to cowboy music to polkas to Mexican ballads to Hawaiian guitars played by some of American music's greatest improvisers.

Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys
San Antonio Rose
Bear Family; 4 stars
$249.98; 11 CDs, one DVD
        There were many great Western Swing bands, notably Milton Brown's Musical Brownies and Spade Cooley's orchestra. But none could touch Bob Wills for sheer longevity and breadth of vision.

        The recordings on this new box set from the German Bear Family label span 1932-1947, from Mr. Wills' start as the fiddler in a duo with Milton Brown to the end of the Texas Playboys' reign as the top WS band.

        This is an exhaustive, long-overdue collection. All the great Wills songs are here, from the title track to Leon McAuliffe's showpiece “Steel Guitar Rag” to “Roly Poly” and dozens of other standards the group created.

        The box contains plenty of rarities for even the hardest-core Wills fan, including two discs of alternate takes making their CD debut.

        The featured singer for most of the 260-plus tracks is Tommy Duncan, whose warm baritone recalls his fellow Texan Jack Teagarden. Soloists include the innovative guitarist Junior Barnard, who was using distortion at a time when most guitarists were just discovering electricity.

        Along with Mr. McAuliffe, the Playboys included steel masters Noel Boggs and Herb Remington. Bebop-inspired electric mandolinist Tiny Moore is featured on the later tracks.

        A DVD of the film Take Me Back to Oklahoma is included, and the lavish set is completed by a hardcover coffee table book packed with rare photos, discographical information and Rich Kienzle's insightful history of the band.

        Released in December, San Antonio Rose sets a new standard for historical boxes. And it swings like crazy.

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