© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“There can be little doubt Stan Kenton saw himself as a musical visionary—a questing, exploratory spirit—and it's a tribute to his strength of purpose no less than his charisma that he was able to impose his vision on, and carry with him so many others on his quest.
Then too, despite whatever one might think of his music, particularly as it has held up in light of all that has transpired in jazz since he first appeared on the scene, it's clear that he succeeded in his major goals. It is partially as a result of his efforts that jazz is now accorded respect as a serious music, perhaps America's major contribution to world music; that the locus of the music has shifted from the nightclub to the concert hall and festival stage; that the synthesis with European concert music he envisioned has been enabled to take place in the work of others who followed in his wake; and that the music has had its horizons widened through various of the concepts he pioneered and set in motion. That he enriched the vocabulary of jazz and changed the character of the jazz orchestra are undeniable; one simply has to listen to those that came into being after him to have this confirmed. …
If he was nothing else, Kenton surely was a catalyst who drew to himself large numbers of gifted artists and, through his example, inspired them to give of their best.”
- Pete Welding
Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
This is where I came into Stan Kenton “World,” although at the time I had no idea that it was the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm era or that there were such periodizations of Stan’s music.
Having heard many of the earlier hits by the band -Concerto to End All Concertos, Collaboration, and Intermission Riff – to name a few, I was certainly ready for more when I encountered Stan’s Contemporary Concepts [Capitol, 1955] and Back to Balboa [Capitol, 1957] albums.
These were the Kenton albums that introduced me to Sam Noto’s beautiful sound in the “Jazz” trumpet chair and the power and precision of the lead trumpet work of Al Porcino and Ed Leddy.
The trademark, vibrato-less Kenton trombone sound was, by now, well-developed and in the capable hands of the likes of Bob Fitzpatrick, Kent Larson and Kenny Shroyer.
Richie Kamuca and particularly Bill Perkins took Lester Young’s hollow sound to new levels on tenor sax while Charlie Mariano’s poignant wail and Lennie Niehaus’ beautifully constructed long lines on alto saxophone made my heart sing and leap, respectively.
These were the albums that introduced me to the slash and bash style of Mel Lewis’ big band drumming; has any big band drum ever played better fills or dropped more well-placed bombs?
But the music on these albums and on the other recordings that were a part of the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm period [roughly 1952-1958/59] was different than the 78s I had listen to from the 1940s in that it was arranged more linearly and the sound from these arrangements flowed more smoothly to the ear.
All of the usual Kenton “fireworks” – the screaming, high register trumpets, the huge, fat trombone sound anchored by two bass ‘bones, the big cymbal splashes – were still all there, but now you could pop your fingers and tap your foot to the charts on Contemporary Concepts and Back to Balboa in a way that was more characteristic of the big bands led by Woody Herman and Count Basie.
As I came to later understand, the reasons for this change in the sound of the Kenton band had everything to do with the arrangers that Stan chose to work with at this time: people like Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Marty Paich. To some extent Bill Russo, Gene Roland and Johnny Richards also belong to this group although they along with Stan and Pete Rugolo would continue to contribute the band’s more customary, orchestral arrangements.
Stan’s music began to move; it acquired more of a metronomic “feel” to it. The arrangements by Mulligan, Holman and Paich had a lighter sound with more of a middle texture that brought the saxophone section more prominently into the band’s arrangements.
To my ears, Bill Russo’s compositions and arrangements represented a transitional style between the Concert Kenton [what Will Friedwald refers to as “… Kenton’s obsession with artmusik”] and the less grandiose looser feel particularly of the Contemporary Concepts album which would largely be made up of the arrangements of Bill Holman [with a tip-of-the-hat to Gerry Mulligan and Marty Paich].
Pete Welding in his insert notes to the CD reissue of New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm offers these thoughts on Kenton’s music at this time:
“To place things in perspective, this particular edition of the Kenton orchestra followed on the heels of the ambitious 40-piece "Innovations In Modern Music" concert ensemble Stan had mounted in early 1950 after a year's sabbatical during which he had completely rethought his musical philosophy. He viewed the larger orchestra, …, as the best means of reestablishing his primacy in vanguard musical thinking. A corollary aim was that by playing only concert engagements, the band's previous ties with dance music would be clearly and finally severed and Kenton would be freed to concentrate on the "serious" concert music he wished to pursue to the exclusion of all else.
While he might have been successful in putting dance music behind him, Kenton soon found the "Innovations" orchestra to be a mixed blessing. He persevered with it on and off for much of the ensuing two years but ultimately the formidable logistics and financial burdens involved in maintaining such a large ensemble proved much too daunting even for him, and the orchestra was disbanded after only two moderately successful concert tours were concluded and a third, of Europe, was canceled.
A return to the "Progressive Jazz" format led ultimately to the group and approach heard here and an abandonment of the grandiose designs of the "Innovations" orchestra in favor of the lighter textures, greater rhythmic resilience and more conventional—but far more deeply creative and ultimately more satisfying —orchestral approaches followed with such happy distinction by Mulligan, Holman and Russo. Their writing for the band clearly showed that when approached with imagination, wit and resourceful creativity such as they possessed, and a solid, informed knowledge of the conventions of big band jazz, which they also had, the music was anything but moribund or played-out but could course with a plenitude of freshness, invention, vitality and bristling contemporaneity. Certainly these charts do, sounding just as spirited and invigorating today as when they created such a furor of excitement on their release 36 years ago.”
Given the preponderant number of arrangements that Bill Russo and Bill Holman wrote for the band during the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm era, not surprisingly,
Mosaic Records elected to label the boxed set it issued of this music as simply Stan Kenton: The Holman and Russo Charts[MD4-136].
In order to keep this piece from getting a bit too unwieldy, we have divided Mosiac and Will’s notes into a Part 1 focus on Bill Russo while covering their thoughts on Bill Holman in a following Part 2. Please keep in mind that the influences on the writing of both Russo and Holman were not strictly chronological.
Mosaic Records and Will Friedwald. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Most of us who've come along since the '50s read our first objective and usuable appraisal of Kenton in Feather's original Encyclopedia of Jazz, which described his music as operating on three levels. On the bottom level there are lowbrow pieces designed to attract the general public. The middle level contains the Kenton band's straight jazz pieces, written by men who also established reputations as major jazz orchestrators before (Gerry Mulligan), during (Shorty
Rogers) and after (Bill Holman) their tenures with Kenton - of these, only Pete Rugolo did virtually all of his most significant work as an instrumental jazz orchestrator during his Kenton period (Rugolo's best work as a consistently-inspired arranger for the great vocalists came later).
In Kenton's own point of view, moving up the ladder landed one on the third and highest rung, that of his most deliberate and, in John S. Wilson's term - "arty art" music - compositions that both challenged one's ears in terms of tonality one's watches in terms of length, the most famous and infamous being Bob Graettinger's City of Glass. Even the title was imposing enough to scare the hell out of you.
Most of what we read about Kenton tells us that the man himself only really loved his music at that third, highest-browed level, but he produced so much good pop, jazz and dance music that it must have held a strong attraction for him.
With the possible exception of the years when Pete Rugolo served as the band's musical director, the music written for Kenton by Bill Holman and Bill Russo, represents the best that Kenton ever recorded from every possible angle - the three levels of low, high and middle brow as well as the distinction between Kenton's rules and the exceptions to same. They're also Kenton's best ravioli - delectably tasty combinations of the band's familiar starchy pasta sound but containing real meat in the middle!
It's generally oversimplified that Russo wrote mainly serious works and Holman was responsible for the band's swingers; Russo also did "lighter vein" pieces like Bill Blues and Holman also came up with the pompously-titled Theme and Variations (both also arranged standards and vocal features for the band). However, the two Bills do exemplify the two approaches towards appreciating Kenton: Russo wrote music that, to use a fittingly Wagnerian term, represents the ne-plus-ultra of Kenton; Holman took Kenton to the limits of un-Kenton.
Wagner's extra-musical angles - leaving aside the radical misinterpretation of the composer's intentions through a racial point of view by certain 20th-century political regimes -parallel Kenton's in that "Artistry in Rhythm" represents the ultimate expression of the American jazz-pop aesthetic in terms of an Anglo-Saxon patriarchal point of view. There's a further theoretical similarity with many a heavy metal rock band of the '70s and '80s, British or otherwise, which use Nordic icons as part of their visual presentations (stage props and album cover art); not in the sound, since Kenton, even at his worst, always at least made music, but in the complete absence of black or ethnic elements.
Performers from the American east, from Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra or even Kenton's own Vido Musso, brought their Jewish or Italian backgrounds to this Afro-American music no less than the black players of Southern ancestry brought their own collective heritage. The kind of Kenton sound that Bill Russo brought to its highest point, "Kenton-Kenton" suggests not an Aryan arrogance but pride - posing that this is no less the stuff of music for both the head and the feet than the music created by the descendants of those who arrived on American shores after 1700.
The second Bill Russo piece to be recorded by Kenton, Halls of Brass, serves as a striking an example of pure "high Kenton" as any in the band's history. An amazingly together piece to come from a 22-year-old (neither Kenton nor Rugolo created anything comparable until their '30s), we can forgive its young composer his attempts to rocket in so many directions at once since his four years with Kenton would give him a remarkable opportunity to adjust his focus. But far more than Kenton's later direct assault on The Ring and Tannheuser et al, Halls of Brass constitutes a far more successful attempt to bring Wagner and Germanic-period Stravinsky into Kentonian terms. And that's mainly because it has such a strong undercurrent of teutonic masculinity - a symphony whose primary color is testosterone, it might well be called Balls of Brass.
… Russo's works for the band are thoroughly Kentonian right down to their 'bones (pun), as they continued the Kenton trombone tradition. Of the 40 or so pieces of Russo's (who stayed in the trombone section until 1953) recorded by the band, virtually all use the instrument extensively, in solos and sections. Solitare (Milt Bernhardt), Ennui (Harry Belts), Frank Speaking, I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues and I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good (all Frank Rosolino), Over the Rainbow (Bob Burgess), A Theme of Four Values and Thisbe (both Bob Fitzpatrick) and the unrecorded Kenton arrangement of Aesthete on Clark Street are all trombone features, whereas by contrast he only penned perhaps one or two specialty features apiece for any of the other horns.
On both features for trombones and other instruments, and other multi-solo pieces too, Russo digs juxtaposing the soloist with birds of a feather - the way in Portrait of a Count, hot trumpeter Conte Candoli is accompanied by a section of blaringly open horns, like Fred Astaire in top hat in TOP HAT surrounded by a chorus line of slender, light-footed dancing men in top hats. And on the solo features as well as other kinds of pieces, besides getting more than one tempo going, he often starts several melodies rolling at once, sometimes in a carefully-controlled cacophonic chaos, sometimes in a simple setting of one theme atop another - and, to return to the space opera ideal, he's especially into the "twinkling stars" sort of backdrop, prominent in Halls of Brass, I Got It Bad and especially Edgon Heath, which plays with notions of foreground and background.
The features for instrumental stars, as written by both Russo and Holman (especially in the "St-St-Starry" masterpieces Stella by Starlight and Stairway to the Stars) come out of the Kenton vocabulary as recently defined by Rugolo, Shorty
Rogers and the leader. 'They were slow and kind of fast in the middle," said Holman, "going back to the things Shorty had done like Art Pepper and Maynard Ferguson, you can use a beautiful song, and let the guy get hot in the middle and finish up the same way." Their slow-fast-slow set-up grows out of Jimmy Dorsey's earlier and more light-hearted three-tempo pop pieces like Tangerine, and, more directly, Dizzy Gillespie's multi-tempo Lover Come Back to Me.
"Stan was right about one thing," Holman added. "On ballads, it was better to feature a solo horn rather than trying to make the whole band sound warm on a ballad melody. It's much better to let a soloist do it because he can put so much more into it than a section playing a written out thing. So, we extended that to some of the hot pieces too, just to give a focus for the chart, to build it around one guy." Whether Russo's solo-spotlight features modulate from dirge to flagwaver or just from slow to stately, in a way that must have really turned Kenton on, they tend to get serious just at the point when another arranger would get sentimental.
Many of the Russo-Kenton concerti affect their speed changes dramatically, sometimes using an a capella pause as the point of tempo modulation, which becomes even more appropriate in the Latinate pieces, as the Latin-jazz orchestra enjoys a healthy tradition of pausing (or in the annals of Perez Prado, pausing and then grunting, though the Kenton-Russo trombones grunt with far greater grating grunginess than even the most road weary of human voices). 23 Degrees North – 82 Degrees West, that cacophonies cackling of the coordinates of Cuba for lascivious lovers of Latin latitudes, represents Russo's masterpiece of poly-everything, being polyrhythmic and polyphonic;, contrasting different time signatures, different sections, different melodies on top of each, both at once and after more of those band-stopping rests.
Writing in Time Magazine in July, 1953, Kenton commented … 'The orchestra as it stands today is the greatest we've had in the twelve years of its existence. With the addition of men like Lee Konitz, Bill Holman, Frank Rosolino and Stan Levey, the band seems to have more drive than ever before - plus the fact that it's 'swinging.' (…) Even Whitney Balliett, the most articulate of anti-Kentonites, conceded in 1953 that the orchestra, ‘reveal(s) a much clearer jazz feeling than ever before.’
The new band used many of Kenton's '40s arrangers at first, including Johnny Richards, Shorty
Rogers, Bob Graettinger and the leader, but as it got deeper into its own touring schedule, Kenton, ever anxious to break new ground, relied more and more on Russo. By this time, the aforementioned established arrangers mainly wrote for Kenton as for a certain, very specialized kind of art kick while workaday studio gigs paid their Bel Air mortgages, but Russo, who remained in the trombone section, grew closer to both the man and the band as his own talents blossomed, and became the first to develop a new, post-Innovations style for the Kenton Orchestra.
In fact, both Russo's "low" and "high" brow pieces brought Kenton closer to what he had striven for with Innovations than he was ever able to do with the really big band. Johnny Richards may have landed the plum chore of explaining to the fans that this new group was in the best Kenton tradition in his Prologue [This is an Orchestra], a latter day equivalent of Benny Goodman's Ooh,Boom wherein B.G. showed he still had a great band (including Lester Young) despite the recent departure of Gene Krupa. But Russo dominated this particular Kenton era, writing virtually all four of Kenton's first original LPs, which included two collections of standards and the first Kenton collection to spotlight a name other than his own – The Music of Bill Russo. Russo also wrote almost all of the album which titled this entire period of the band's development, New Concepts, with the following phrase in much smaller letters near the bottom of the front cover, ‘Of Artistry In Rhythm.’
In his highly-concentrated Kenton career, Russo delved so deep into the essence of Kentonia that he was bound to dig clear through to
. To explain, let's go three degrees backwards and two degrees to the left: Kenton maintained his uniqueness by never going 100% into the mode of any era; only Woody Herman trusted his audiences enough to completely go native with every worthwhile new trend. Whether Kenton played bop or semi-classical pieces they always sounded like Kenton first and whatever other style they happened to be in second. China
And that includes the "cool" movement, of which, quite literally, every major writer and player had been part of the Orchestra at some time (and, as Russo pointed out, "'colonized'
because that was Stan's home base when they worked for him"). They had comparatively little effect on the Kenton sound, mainly because he filtered those cool and contrapuntal ideas through his intrinsic heaviness. Even Shorty 'Twinkletoes" Los Angeles - with Gerry Mulligan the major "cool" arranger - sounds comparatively heavy in his Kenton pieces. Only Russo, in pieces like Fascinatin’ Rhythm, gives the weighty Kenton aggregation the true bottomless bounce of "cool" at its best, without removing any of the elements that let you know in two shakes of a monkey's tail exactly whose band you're listening to. Said Russo, "a Kenton band is almost instinctively recognizable because of its distinctive sound, personality and flair for the unusual." Rogers
On some of his settings of standard ballads as well, Russo finds in the Kenton sound something no other arranger had ever been able to bring out: lightness and elegance - a discovery as potent as Bill Holman's demonstration that the Kenton sound, in and of itself, could swing. Gerry Mulligan, briefly a Kenton arranger but for a long time one of his most astute commentators, has often expressed his preference for Claude Thornhill's great band (especially in the years after the war and before the second ban, when Gil Evans wrote the bulk of its arrangements), explaining that Thornhill's impressionistic tone-poem-like tableaux contained more beauty than Kenton's muscle-heavy machinations.
However, Russo, in these 1953 homages to the greater glories of Tin Pan Alley, brings a Thornhillian gentleness (most directly on There’s a Small Hotel) to the Kenton pallette, again, without taking away anything from what the boss expected. This Sophisticated Lady, for instance, even betrays lipstick traces of authentic femininity - the trumpet is muted rather than blaring through your brains - even if said lady does insist on running her jungle-red fingernails across the chalkboard of your heart, whereas You and the Night and the Music deftly shows that Astaire might have made a better dancing partner for this band than Tex Ritter. April in Paris, in Kenton style, threatens to become "December in Dresden," but its comparative featheriness and muted trumpet part point to the slightly later hit Basic version. How High the Moon retreats to its pre-jazz ballad tempo, with the characteristic blasting very nearly shooting higher than said satellite.
Having finished the two ten-inch albums of his re-thinkings of standards, Russo's final four "mood" pieces for Kenton, A Theme of Four Values, Dusk, Edgon Heath and Thisbe, show that the composer had completed a remarkable evolution since his initial works for the Innovations band only four years earlier. These are the kind of pieces that must have thoroughly thrilled and frustrated Kenton at the same time. Just as Kenton felt that Pete Rugolo captured what he wanted in 1945 better than he could, in 1954 Bill Russo is using every element of the Kenton sound - the Chopinesque piano, the brass demolition crew, the wild fluctuations in volume and dynamics - in a way that Kenton never really trusted himself to.
Russo creates truly serious and very heavy compositions that are not at all pretentious (because it achieves everything it sets out to do). Contrastingly, Kenton, especially after the commercial success of peanut vendor and the creep, only trusted his own abilities in terms of jukebox-oriented singles. In sponsoring and then conducting the more "serious" works of Graettinger and Russo (and, to another extent, the full swing pieces of Holman) Kenton must have been getting his thrills vicariously.
The key was to explore elements in keeping with the Kenton character yet which previous arrangers had not yet fully exploited. Ultimately, Russo prefers to polythematically play two riffs against each other at once, while Bill Holman would rather take one irresistible riff and bounce it along until it gradually leads into solos and subsequent phrases; the various melodies generally come one at a time, not simultaneously.”
To be continued in … New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm – Part 1
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
If he was nothing else, Kenton surely was a catalyst who drew to himself large numbers of gifted artists and, through his example, inspired them to give of their best.”
- Pete Welding
As I mentioned in Part 1 of the profile on the New Concepts Kenton orchestras, this is “where I came in,” so to speak; this was my in-depth involvement with Stan Kenton’s music.
Thanks to Kenton’s willingness to allow lead trumpeter Al Porcino and drummer Mel Lewis to set the direction of the band during the mid-1950’s, and because of a host of arrangements by the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Marty Paich and Lennie Niehaus, the Kenton band that I first heard of the Contemporary Concepts  and Back to Balboa  LPs was a swinging aggregation.
Michael Sparke, in his marvelous Stan Kenton: This is an Orchestra!, explains the origins of this version the Kenton Orchestra:
“... the real catalyst who changed the band's music forever was Gerry Mulligan. … Limelight, Swing House, Walking Shoes, and Young Blood may not have been archetypal Kenton, but from a jazz point of view Mulligan's charts were without peer. …
"Mulligan's charts were a lot of fun to play," commented Lennie Niehaus, "because we had a lot more freedom to do what we wanted. By thinning out the lines and making them less cluttered, Gerry softened the sound of the band. It was like Bach, contrapuntal, and the moving parts would weave in and out of each other, so that lightened up the sound, and helped the band to swing in a different manner. We have Gerry Mulligan to thank for that. He led the way for Holman and myself, and maybe a few other arrangers. The guys in the band thought it was great, but Stan needed a lot of convincing."…
Immediate beneficiary of the Mulligan influence was Bill Holman. "My first arrangements the band played were Deep Purple and Star Eyes both for the dance library. But I loved Gerry Mulligan's charts so much, the next thing I wrote sounded just like what Gerry had been writing, so Stan never used that one at all. But I was playing all of Gerry's arrangements—or at least, the ones Stan was using. So I really got to pay attention to what made up a great writer's charts.
"But Mulligan was not interested in becoming a Kenton arranger. He just wrote his kind of music for Stan, and there was no compromising. In my case, I wanted to write for Stan Kenton, so I spent many months just trying to figure out how I was going to do it. And when I did start writing for the band, it was not quite like Gerry, but there was a whole lot of influence there. Stan made it plain from the start he didn't want any Count Basie-type swing charts, and I knew I didn't want to write Progressive Jazz, so I had to find some kind of middle way that would keep us both happy; and eventually I did. And it was heavier, more massive than the things that Gerry wrote, but that's because of who I was working for."
According to Noel Wedder, "Holman and Stan carried on a 'love-hate' relationship for years. Of all his arrangers, Stan was closest to Bill, which didn't stop them from quarrelling. Their arguments over scores were legendary. But Stan saw Holman as the son he'd always wanted. Charming. Self-effacing. Determined. Stubborn. A take-no-prisoners attitude. But above all, extremely talented." With the last comment at least, the musicians agreed to a man.
"When it comes to writing," said Bill Trujillo, "Holman's got a way of simplifying things. He'll write one unison line, and a counterpoint. When you play Bill's charts you feel happy. They just hit you right. They swing. The way he does things is different from any other arranger, like a big band playing as a small group.”
Opined Bill Perkins: "I would say Bill Holman's music was the best-liked by the band. The secret? Taste and voice-leading. Bill Holman wrote the book on voice-leading for big bands.” And Phil Gilbert: ''I think Bill Holman is the greatest composer/ arranger alive or dead, just listen to the prolific body of work he has done. He has written masterpieces for his own band, countless singers, and the likes of Terry Gibbs and Stan Kenton. It is a thrill to play his music. If you ask anyone, in any section of the orchestra, how they like their part, the answer is 'Perfect!' No boring parts, ever!" [pp. 97-98]
For more on what makes the Bill Holman “sound” so distinctive in the Kenton Orchestra, here are Will Friedwald views from the insert notes that he prepared for the Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman and Russo Charts [Mosaic MD4-136].
Mosaic Records and Will Friedwald. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Holman's earliest pieces, most famously invention for GUITAR
AND TRUMPET, use the baroque, counterpoint-heavy style then in vogue as a result of the popularity of the various BIRTH of the cool and Kenton arrangers (not to mention Tristano). "I realize now that counterpoint was my whole shtick then," says Holman, "that was the whole west coast jazz thing. People would say 'we got a record date - let's call an arranger and have him write some contrapuntal charts.' That was a weird period, with everybody writing these Bach-kind of fugues, full of eighth notes flying all over the place. If something sells a couple dozen more, the record guys will think that's gotta be the answer."
Bill Holman's work shows that he quickly established that his forte was in bringing out the simpler, more strictly swinging essence of Kentonian cool. Even by the time of theme
and variations, despite the title, Holman had become more frugal than fugal, he had honed his style down to a point where it wasn't a million themes and variations happening all at once (which only Russo could bring about coherently) but in succession - easy to follow yet which never talk down to the listener. Holman's charts provide the perfect get off points for both dancers and soloists, while at the same time remain true to the essence of what Kenton wanted to do with his band.
The band remained stable after Russo, in turn, left the trombone section to write for it full time, despite occasional periods of down-time generally at the ends of years and fall tours, as in both the late autumn of '53 and '54. When Kenton re-grouped in January '55, however, the new orchestra was different enough from what had come before to suggest yet another new - or rather semi-new - era. The '52 - '54 music, dominated by Russo, became known by the
new concepts album; the '55 - '56 Kenton sound, guided largely by Holman, was best represented by an album sought after even by those who wouldn't normally take Kenton records as a gift -contemporary concepts. In retrospect, these two pinnacles of the band's existence are best thought of as the Concepts I and Concepts II bands.
Importantly, Holman's Kenton experience coincided with that of the jazz giant soon to become one of Holman's biggest boosters and Kenton's sharpest critics, Gerry Mulligan. "I don't think Gerry was ever too happy about the way in which we performed his music," said Kenton. YOUNGBLOOD from
NEW CONCEPTS, LIMELIGHT from CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTS, SWING HOUSE from THE KENTON ERA and Geru's big band adaptation of his small group marvel WALKIN’ SHOES, being their most famous joint efforts.
"Mulligan is quite an individualist and I guess I am also, and as much respect as we have for each other, if I had let the orchestra play Mulligan's music just exactly the way he wanted it played, it wouldn't have had a Kenton sound to it at all," Kenton continued, "Gerry isn't as bitter about it as he was at one time, but there was a time when he, Gerry, declared I never would perform his music any way that he wanted it performed. You know, even his big band sounded like a small group, they played like a small group; whereas I think that a big band should sound like a big band, and it should have strength as well as the soft things. So, the relationship between Gerry and I was never really too happy. Today I think we're over that and Gerry and I are quite good friends." Said Lee Konitz, "I was surprised that Gerry and Stan even ever started working together, not that they didn't continue for very long."
Holman probably benefited more from this aborted relationship - which was supposed to begin with a full ten charts - than either Mulligan or Kenton. "I got a big boost from Gerry Mulligan," he said. "Stan didn't really like (his charts), but he played 'em. Playing those things in the band was a real eye-opener, because Gerry was working on the same thing that I was - the contrapuntal lines and not so much of the concerted ensemble, breaking the band down into smaller groups and unison lines and things like that. Playing those charts of Gerry's was heaven, and it gave me a good start on things that I wanted to do with the band." Holman perhaps gained from the experience by negative example; Kenton played Mulligan's music to a certain degree because the critics and public had already substantiated their validity. For Holman to do what he wanted with Kenton's orchestra, he had to respect the leader's wishes a little more - as the four R's of Kenton arranging, Rugolo, Roland, Richards and Russo, had - and come up with a happy compromise that would reflect the best tastes of both men.
"I really got started writing for Kenton at the end of '52, the guys in the band had shown a lot of enthusiasm for my stuff, and that helped Stan make his peace with it - here was something different," Holman said, "So he kept encouraging me and I kept writing, all through the summer and fall of '53 when we went to Europe (followed by a stay at Bird land and the start of the 1953-early '54 "Festival of Modern American Jazz" package tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner)." However, Kenton and Holman "had kind of a disagreement" and Holman did not return after the Christmas '53 layoff.
'Then, a few months later they were out on the coast, but I heard they were recording all these things I had done [including the miraculous Konitz-Holman session, which Holman does not remember attending]. And I really thought that was extraordinary because I thought after I had left the band that would be it. I went down to the recording. I was pleased that Stan didn't harbor a grudge after all the horrible things 1 had said to him!" When Kenton did his second "festival" tour, he re-recruited Holman. "He got the band together in late summer of'54 and I went on that trip. In the middle of that trip he sent me to
to work on a couple of things, including STELLA BY STARLIGHT and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. So by that time our animosities had cooled out." New York
Holman's earlier works for Kenton continue the contrapuntal concept, and also extend the idea of featuring instruments not accustomed to taking a starring role in the jazz and big band sphere (the unrecorded FRIVOLOUS
SAL uses the guitar considerably more adventurously than the original INVENTION FOR GUITAR TRUMPET, where Salvador primarily plays a written fugal line). bags, a feature for bass that harkens back to the Ellington-Blanton band masterpieces and Kenton's own contemporaneous CONCERTO FOR DOGHOUSE with Howard Rumsey, but, expanding on Dizzy Gillespie's ONE... and TWO... BASS HIT(s), features the bassist throughout and not just in the head statements.
After the epochful fall '53 European tour, a landmark event for American music as much for Kenton himself, and then the no-less-earth-shattering 1953 "Festival" tour which, instead of the usual star vocalists offered in these package shows (Nat Cole and Sarah Vaughan had topped the bill in the previous year's edition), teamed the Kenton band with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Holman and Konitz had both left the band. Therefore, when an all-Holman-Konitz-Kenton date went down on March 1, 1954, no one was more surprised than Holman, who learned about it long after the fact (he still doesn't remember ever writing this chart on LOVERMAN), and Konitz, and possibly, Kenton.
Listening to the four tracks from that session on this set, they fit so perfectly well together like four mini-masterpieces (they could almost be an Ellington suite for bebop alto) that it's tough to believe they were both conceived and originally released much more haphazardly. The two standards, LOVERMAN and MY FUNNY VALENTINE had originally been loosely sketched out by Holman for Charlie Parker to play (explaining why two "Lovermen" exist in the Kenton library as Konitz features) in front of the Kenton band in that fall '53 tour (Dizzy Gillespie having used his own orchestral charts; Bird also played his recorded arrangement of night
AND DAY by Joe Lippman with Kenton on that tour). According to Konitz, Kenton had originally planned to record these charts with Bird, but, knowing Norman Granz's disdain for letting his contract artists appear on other labels and for big band music in general, Parker could not appear; they were unofficially but fortunately recorded in live performances, and have since been issued on private Kenton collector's labels (a third, CHEROKEE, was recorded in '55 with altoist Charlie Mariano in the Bird's nest).
'The only reason (for that date) was that they planned on doing it with Bird," Konitz recalled. "Stan called me one day (several months after leaving the band) and asked me to come on as a soloist. I said 'Gee, I'd be delighted,' and asked who else would be on the date. He said, 'Charlie Parker,' and I said, 'What?' I couldn't believe it!" Said Konitz, 'There was a bit of a story during the tour with Bird and Diz, that Dizzy was nudging Bird because I was supposedly mopping the floor with him. I met Max Roach one day on Central Park West and alluded to that and he said that it was a fact: The word is out that you're cutting Bird.' I mean, God damn! The reason, of course, was that I was in a familiar environment, I had been in that band for 15 months or so, and Bird had just stepped in and wasn't that comfortable, obviously. Plus, he was juicing. But then, I remember Dizzy telling me later, after he told Bird, This young ofay is cutting you, you better get with it.' Then Dizzy, said, 'I'm sorry I said anything because the next night / was the one who had to follow Bird!'"
Along with the two Parker features, Kenton also seized the opportunity to commit to tape two Holman masterworks written directly for Konitz, a standard variant, of
all things (as the title implies, based on all the things you ark) and an original variously titled in lighter vein or dn a lighter vein. Thus, for possibly the only time in the four-decade Kenton chronicle, an entire date went to a single arranger and a single soloist, anticipating even Ellington's featuring Paul Gonsalves session of 1962. The Ellington-Gonsalves album/session befell a similar fate in that no trace of it saw the light until the late '80s, while the Konitz/Holman session has only been heard scattershot on a variety of Capitol (American and English) and Creative World singles, EPs & LPs, with no two of the tracks ever being on the same release - perhaps it just sounded too vehemently unKentonian while he was alive -until now.
Despite Kenton's passion for blaring brass and drummers that aspired to cauldrons as much as kettles, and despite Konitz's contention that, "Playing a saxophone in a big brass band is not enviable, you're almost just padding for the trumpets (In my next lifetime I'll be a drummer)!", the alto saxes were always the soloists to pay attention to in the Kenton band. And that goes from the beginning, when Art Pepper and George Wiedler made a hot and sweet counterpart to Basic's tough-and-tender tenor team of Hershal Evans and Lester Young, through Bud Shank, Charlie Mariano, Gabe Baltazar (who owed as much to earlier swing altos like Willie Smith as to Bird), Herb Geller, Harry Klee, Dick Meldonian, Lennie Niehaus, noted ornithologist
Davey Schildkraut, Boots Mussulli, Herbie Steward, Ronnie Lang.
But, without fear of contradiction, the greatest alto saxist and therefore the greatest soloist in the band's history was Lee Konitz. To justify his edge over Pepper, let me cop out of an apples-vs-oranges decision by explaining that Pepper was younger and years away from his peak in his Kenton years, where Konitz had already spent years with other bands large (Thornhill) and small (Miles Davis), not to mention industrial strength woodshedding with Lennie Tristano. 'The Tristano guys put me down for going with Kenton," Konitz said, "but they were the first to copy my solos." From the outset, Konitz wails sensationally enough to more than justify this extravagant claim - he's not only all over his horn, he's all over the band and all over the arrangement, a ceaseless dynamo of great ideas conceived and expressed brilliantly.
But Holman charges that as late as that session (even on the next day's recorded offerings, which included no less than five more Holman classics), "the band didn't really have a very solid swing concept, because Stan was always yelling for straight eighths and I was always writing swing time. Poor Buddy (Childers, Kenton's lead trumpeter for many years), who was responsible for the phrasing, tried to satisfy us both with a middle ground, it just came out sounding weird." Mel Lewis concurred, "I don't think (drummer) Stan Levey enjoyed playing with Buddy, or Childers with Levey. And then Kenton's concept of straight eighths is a little difficult for a drummer, especially a bebop drummer. You've got to change it and you've got to be tricky."
When Kenton again re-organized after the Christmas '54 lay-off, the band that took to the road in January '55 was the remarkable "Concepts II" edition. In 1937 Kenton had experience with straight-ahead swing, playing in hotel bandleader Gus Arnheim's refurbished group. Earlier editions of the Kenton orchestra itself, before Kenton and Rugolo developed the original concept of Artistry in Rhythm, also sounded more like your average white swing band.
But while some are born swinging and some achieve swing, Kenton had swing thrust upon him. Never before or after the Concepts bands - II even more than I - would Kenton swing so willingly, so deliberately and with so much of his heart. To reverse that idea, the Kenton orchestras always had swing in their hearts, meaning that the soloists could and did. But what distinguishes an orchestra with swinging soloists from a truly swinging orchestra is how it handles its solo players, whether it encourages or impedes them, and what it puts around them. In pondering the Shakespearian question, to swing or not to swing, the responsibility falls on two key men, the lead trumpeter has to pull the band exactly the right way from the front, and the drummer has to push the band just so from behind.
But, with Concepts II, Kenton not only put the right men in those crucial chairs, he encouraged them to do as they pleased. "I was sure this was to be Stan's best band ever, and, in fact, one of the greatest bands ever, since Bill Holman had written a whole new and wonderful book," wrote Al Porcino, "With sidemen like Mariano, Perkins, Niehaus, Fontana, Noto, Max Bennett and Mel, it was certainly one of my most enjoyable times working for Stan." Said Holman, "In '55, Stan had given Porcino carte blanche, and they also had Mel Lewis. So, they had the conception down, and I was so knocked out, because it was the first chance I had to really hear the charts played like a jazz band!"
Perhaps what makes them work is that they're not just like a jazz band but they still have enough of what makes us love the old Kenton carbohydrate sound; while any number of arrangers could write a great swinging chart, it was damn near impossible to make Kenton's concepts swing in and of themselves, as Holman did. STELLA BY STARLIGHT is perhaps the most glorious of all flights of soul by that young Bird of Boston, Charlie Mariano. It's one of those classic Kenton three-tempo jobs that Russo had already brought to perfection, and Holman's backing for the first chorus (which he discusses elsewhere) utilizes advance technical trickery worthy of the text books. But just when Holman, Mariano and Victor Young's melody have lulled you into romantic; reverie, out comes the mighty Melvin slapping you out of it in a vigorous trade of fours with master Mariano, as the ensemble launches into a series of typically brilliant Holman melodic variations (even when the written tune does sneak through, it's never one of the more easily identifiable passages).
The fast and slow parts, far from simply destroying the other's momentum, accentuate each other by virtue of their proximity. And Holman does no worse with mono-rhythmic pieces like YESTERDAYS, which spots Bill Perkins (one of the few players who made a reputation with the bands of both Kenton and Herman) in a dreamy yet intense Kern-el of Kentonia crammed with bittersweet reminiscence, and a forerunner of the long-awaited Holman-Art Pepper ballad epic WINTER MOON. On the way-up CHEROKEE, another ace altoist, Lennie Niehaus, gets an early chance to show off the admiration and understanding for Charlie Parker which would eventually land him the commission to score Clint Eastwood's mm) flick.
NEW, I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN and STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, which, along with Mulligan's LIMELIGHT rounded out the original twelve-inch contemporary concepts, represent the pinnacle of Holman's arch-melody works, wherein the arranger transforms both original melody and chords into a new tune with just enough of the original to hang on to, very much the way Lester Young or Stan Getz (especially in his essential old BLACK MAGIC variations) would "read" a melody in a first chorus.
SKIN sports six soloists (one inter-solo interlude dropping into a contrapuntal episode), none more keenly felt than Mel Ijewis, who uses the Kenton style as an excuse for reconciling bebop bomb-dropping with traditional big band push. what's
NEW disperses more round-harmony melodic fragments as it answers its own nominal question, with Perkins rambulating in the alto-tenor range, and the sections making the usual range rounds from outerspace to underground, dissolving in a Russian movie-type fade out, but still swinging! , with its ten-bar recomposition of the original eight, proffers a basic-line so irresistible that had it too been devised in 1934, just as many bands would have added it to their books. SAVOY
But this too shall pass. It was just too un-Kentonian to last. As Konitz observed regarding the Mulligan-Kenton relationship, the miracle is that it ever happened at all, no matter how brief. This was a man who couldn't bring himself to say the word "Zoot" on stage and insisted on referring to his 1953 tenor star as "Jack Sims" (leaving many fans, who had been following Zoot's rising star since Benny Goodman's 1943 band, to wonder who he might be talking about). A man who wouldn't play what might have been Holman's most danceable original, BOOP BOOP BE DOOP because the title was also beyond the realm of things he wanted to pronounce into a microphone going out to thousands of innovative conceptualist fans (Holman told Carol Easton "he wanted to call it 'Artistry in Cosmic Radiation' or something). On a recently-issued live version of hoop, Kenton disassociates himself from the title by clarifying, in his intro, that 'The orchestra has chosen this one." (Undoubtedly true. "Towards the end of any given night, Stan sometimes asked, 'what do you guys wanna play,"' remembered Sal Salvador, "And we'd always say, one of those Gerry Mulligan or Bill Holman charts.")
'The consensus was that the band was getting out of his control and going too far the sidemen's way, so he just decided to call it a halt and think about it," said Holman, adding, "He still had jazzy charts in the band after that, especially when Dee Barton was there." After Kenton's most visible summer ever - in which the band did a TV series, MUSIC '55, that did not make it beyond summer replacement status in the same season that Lawrence Welk became the hottest thing on the picture tube - Porcino said goodbye for the last time, in December. He sensed the handwriting before it had even gotten as far as the wall, and was "tired," he said, "and disappointed that Stan did not follow through with swing."
Mel Lewis stayed on through the February '56 HI-FI album, and long enough to enjoy working with Curtis Counce, and an April '56 European tour, but by that time it was no longer the same band. When Mariano split before the trip to become half of the frontline of Shelly Manne and his Men, Kenton, once again in the mood for instrumental experimentation as opposed to playing it straight-ahead, replaced him with two French horn players. However, still determined to forever thwart expectations, when the band returned, Kenton made one of his unflakiest and hardest-hitting of all records, CUBAN
FIRE, penned by longtime associate Johnny Richards and spotlighting one of the greatest tenor players ever featured in Kenton's or almost anyone else's band, Lucky Thompson (I wonder if he was tempted to add a shofar section - including tenor and bass shofars - and follow CUBAN FIRE with JEWISH LIGHTING).
And still, after carrying the French horns and a brass bass (tuba to you and me) for a season or so, Kenton was in the mood to swing again by '57 and for the rest of the decade, when he got around to recording a hitherto un-studio'ed Holman swinger ROYAL
BLUE. The '58 band, boasting the Mel Lewis-inspired Jerry MacKenzie on drums as well as old hands Lennie Niehaus and Richie Kamuca, shows here it need not never defer to the '55 band in the flagwaver department. But after this, the last Concepts item to make it into the studio, Kenton only contacted Holman for a few in-character indulgences: the mellophonium band and two undistinguished singers that he seemed determined to elevate to the status of O'Day, Christy and Connor, namely Ann Richards and Jean Turner.
Of the recorded instrumentals Holman provided for the 1961 band stairway to the stars comes off as a worthy sequel to STELLA BY STARLIGHT in its intense alto soulfully striding a rethought melody (opening a capella - or sans rhythm anyway), and several tempo changes, with the underdog Gabe Baltazar emerging a worthy heir to the mantle of Mariano and Konitz. MALAGUENA, a case study of mellophonium momentum and classic Kentonism, includes just about everything the leader dug, being Latin-American, semi-classical and encompassing swooping trombones, roaring altos, tons of tumultuous tempi and percussive effects that sound more like the neibelungen pounding out the rheingold than caballeros contemplating the quantity of coffee in Brazil. Further Holman appearances in the Creative World, with the Neophonic Orchestra (which also reunited Kenton with Bill Russo) and
, the much later follow-up to MALAGUENA, amount to mere postscripts to their relationship. MALAGA
Despite Holman and Russo's works for the band, which all belong clearly to the realm of successful art music that will last forever, no less now than when Kenton was alive does admitting to liking his music constitute a guilty pleasure. It's like being a vegetarian with a secret craving for fried chicken. Sure the stuff was pretentious, and even at its best had a starchy taste that you had to get used to. But was it worth it? I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind.
It was the best of bands, it was the worst of bands. It was the pure tommy-rot of pretension, it was the soul of soaring unselfconsciousness. It was the very stuff of swing, it was a egomaniac's demented dream of pompousness. It was as light as Basie and as heavy as Beethoven. It was indulgent and ecstatic, funereal and joyful. It was, in short, a band like no other.
This, God damn it, was an orchestra.
Thus spake Kenton.