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Here’s a generous helping of holiday cheer from the Capitol Bones Big Band that’s sure to help make anyone’s season happy and bright. Having somehow overlooked Stan Kenton’s album Merry Christmas more than forty years ago, I was delighted to learn that the DC-based Capitol Bones planned to record a new one using trumpets, mellophones and some of the original charts penned by Ralph Carmichael or Stan himself. Now that I’ve listened to the album, that delight has given way to admiration, as A Stan Kenton Christmas is even better than envisioned.
Inspired by Kenton’s earlier endeavor, the Bones are flat-out brilliant when performing eight of Carmichael’s colorful charts, Stan’s Kenton-ized version of “Adeste Fideles” and half a dozen fabulous arrangements by members of the band. As Carmichael and Kenton wrote entirely for the ensemble (their charts are relatively concise, with “Adeste Fideles” at 2:54 the longest), soloists are stage center only on the newer arrangements. Trombonist Jay Gibble is featured on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (arranged by Jim Roberts), trumpeter Graham Breedlove on Bob Wells / Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” (arranged by trombonist Matt Niess), Niess and mellophonist Terry Bingham on “Greensleeves” (arranged by Niess), Breedlove, trumpeter Craig Fraedrich and trombonist Jim McFalls on “My Favorite Things” (also arranged by Niess). McFalls, Fraedrich and drummer Steve Fidyk add the solo firepower on “Big Bad Drummin’ Dude,” a muscular chart by Niess that deftly juxtaposes elements of “The Little Drummer Boy” with trumpeter Ray Wetzel’s familiar “Intermission Riff.” The album closes with “Away in a Manger,” neatly scored by pianist Tony Nalker (who comps marvelously throughout) as a showcase for the band’s superlative trombone section. In addition to the six ’bones (four tenor, two bass) and rhythm, the ensemble houses five trumpets (ably quarterbacked by Liesl Whitaker) and four mellophones, fairly close to the same lineup used by Kenton on Merry Christmas.
Never thought I’d hear a big-band album sans reed section that was so good I never even missed the saxophones, but there you have it. “What we did in the ’60s,” Carmichael writes in the liner notes, “was a bridge to what I hear on this CD, and I’m grateful to have been a bridge builder.” As he, Taylor and Stan’s companion and executor of his estate, Audree Coke Kenton, affirm, the maestro would have been proud of what the Capitol Bones Big Band has produced. The downside is that the album has been released so close to the holiday season that promotion becomes a problem; on the other hand, the music therein is so splendid that it can be enjoyed throughout the year, no holiday needed. In other words, a highly pleasurable big-band listening experience that transcends any and all seasons.
Track Listing: Angels We Have Heard on High; O Tannenbaum; We Three Kings; Adeste
Fideles; Christmas Time Is Here; Good King Wenceslas; Greensleeves;
The Holly and the Ivy; My Favorite Things; O Holy Night; God Rest Ye Merry
Gentlemen; The Christmas Song; Once in Royal David
Personnel: Mark Taylor, director; Liesl Whitaker, Ken McGee, Craig Fraedrich,
Graham Breedlove, Roger Rossi, trumpet; Matt Niess, Jim McFalls, Jay
Gibble, Todd Baldwin, trombone; Jerry Amoury, Jeff Cortazzo, bass
trombone; Gil Hoffer, Terry Bingham, James McKenzie, Rick Lee,
mellophone; Tony Nalker, piano, celeste; Jim Roberts, bass; Steve Fidyk,
drums; Harold Summery, percussion.