In 1950 and 1951 Stan Kenton assembled a 40-piece orchestra (his standard 19-piece big band supplemented by strings) and presented the first significant attempt at evolving the dance band into an ensemble more closely resembling the symphony orchestra. The resulting music was what later came to be known as "third stream," that is, combining the elements of big band jazz and symphonic music into a unique hybrid. The Innovations Orchestra was an outstanding musical success, but from a financial standpoint, Kenton found out that doubling the size of a big band increased his expenses four-fold. Nevertheless, in two years the Innovations Orchestra recorded some of the finest symphonically-influenced jazz music of the twentieth century. It is not extravagent to say that without the trailblazing example of the Innovations Orchestra there would have never been a Don Ellis Orchestra or the music of Gunther Schuller and John Lewis.
In addition to Kenton, the roster of composers who contributed scores to the Innovations Orchestra reads like a Who's Who of American jazz at midcentury: Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards (the composer of the Adventires in Time album), Bill Russo, Franklyn Marks, Neal Hefti, Shorty Rogers, Manny Albam, Bob Graettinger (who later composed the controversial "City of Glass") and Brazilian guitar virtuoso Laurindo Almeida. One of the fascinating things about the music of the Innovations Orchestra is that many of the compositionslike those of Duke Ellington'swere written with specific soloists in mind. In fact, a number of the charts have titles taken from the names of the musicians for whom they were originally written: "Art Pepper," "Maynard Ferguson," Shelly Manne," "June Christy" and "Coop's Solo" (for tenor man Bob Cooper).
Although two-CD compilation includes 30 compositions, a few of the charts deserve to be singled out for special attention. Bill Russo's "Solitaire" is a haunting melody that features the full-throated trombone of Milt Bernhart. In this piece one can hear the first inklings of a talent that would later go on to produce such innovative compositions for jazz orchestra like "Egdon Heath." Additionally, the Bob Graettinger compositions, "Incident in Jazz" and "House of Strings" display the protean skills of a composer who was at least fifty years ahead of his time and whose music is still being deciphered to this very day by scholars.
Some critics have complained that what Kenton attempted with the Innovations Orchestras wasn't really jazz, that it didn't swing, that it was too cerebral. Well, it's almost impossible to think of a musical ensemble including both Maynard Ferguson and Art Pepper not swinging. The Innovations Orchestra was quite capable of swinging and it did much of the time. But it was also capable of producing music of an extraordinarily high quality that makes one think in addition to making one's toes tap.
Personnel: Includes: Stan Kenton, Innovations Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, Art
Pepper, Bob Cooper, Laurindo Almeida.