This relatively obscure orchestra is the missing link between older jazz and the regimentation of Swing. The band had arrangements but there was ample space for them to stretch out and with excellent soloists like JC Higginbotham, trombonist extraordinaire, Pops Foster on bass (likened by Philip Larkin to the engine room of a great ship), not to mention Henry Red Allen, a trumpeter who admired Armstrong but had his own fiery style, some of these performances rank among the best ever recorded in the name of jazz.
Panama is Russell's masterpiece and my favourite ever jazz record. Difficult to say why except that the balance of control and passion feels so right: at times the pace is so ferocious they almost lose control of their instruments - but don't; each solo adds another delight yet there is never any sense of competition, only their delirious pleasure in adding to the whole. The power of these performances knitting together is also about the common language of New Orleans and the experience of playing together night after night - resulting in three minutes of distilled joy which Humphrey Lyttleton describes, with far more detail and authority than I can muster, in his appropriately entitled The Best of Jazz.
So why is the Luis Russell Orchestra unknown to the general public? The excellent sleevenotes (fuller than I have seen for any other compilation) explain why the band never attained the longevity of the Ellington or Basie orchestras: economic factors and a lack of nerve (or simply common sense, given the depression?) which led to Russell emulating other bands rather than continuing to plough his own distinctive furrow - but as the notes say, "the records, in all their undimmed splendor, endure."
This double CD gives you all you need, and perhaps a little more so - there are some treacly vocal performances on the second CD, and the sheer number of tracks makes it less of a cohesive listen than some other CD and LP reissues - but as the more compact Savoy Shout (JSP), which has all the essential sides, is deleted this is undoubtedly the best alternative soundwise, though you may wish to supplement it with the double CD of Henry Allen on JSP (remastered, like this and Savoy Shout, by the late John RT Davies), fronting the same band, and listen, perhaps, to the handful of tracks Armstrong recorded with them, such as Dallas Blues and St Louis Blues, before their more permanent, and generally less adventurous, hookup in the mid thirties. My rating reflects the best tracks; the quality of these more than compensates for the rest.
Postscript: Pleasin' Paul can be found on the Red Allen double CD mentioned above.
Jazz fans in the UK have always had a soft spot for the Luis Russell recordings on Okeh which were issued over here by Parlophone almost as soon as they were released in the States. This collection comprises all the Okeh sessions plus the lesser known ones for Victor and Brunswick. In addition the two 'King Oliver' sessions are included although Richard Sudhalter in his excellent notes doesn't make clear whether Oliver was in the studio directing things or whether he left it all to Russell.
The music is, generally, superb with wonderful ensemble work and fine solos from the likes of Henry 'Red' Allen, J C Higgenbottom, Charlie Holmes and Rex Stewart. The rhythm section on - the bulk of the recordings - of Paul Barbarin, Pops Foster, Russell himself, and Will Johnson has a uniquely powerful forward drive. The Okeh sessions are some of the most important in Jazz history. It is good to have them set in context so the listener can see how the band evolved from 'just another' Harlem band of the late 1920s into something very special indeed and then declined to 'just another' Harlem band in the mid 1930's.
John R T Davis' remastering is, as one would expect, superb. The documentation is comprehensive and the price very reasonable. An essential purchase.
There isn't anyhting I can add to the very good comments already here, except to say I am most surprised that a track named, "Pleasing Paul" is missing. Have no idea why. There is a track of the song online that I found a few months ago, but alas it's a broken link. Or broken something because the track doesn't play fully. A real shame as 'Pleasing Paul' shows off not only the band, but the surpurb genius of Red Allen, whose framed photo I had on our bdroom wall along with Bix, Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. All immortals.
If I have a serious critisism of this collection, it is the un-necessary duplication of tracks which adds nothing. Most of the time I can't hear the difference between take one and take two. It is done to bloat the collection and make the buyer feel like we're getting a great deal. We aren't but as the saying goes, The Customer is Always RIPE!