It was Stan Kenton who coined the term “neophonic” to describe the music created by his adventurous L.A.–based orchestra in the mid-’60s. He also introduced the mellophonium as part of a Jazz orchestra. This exhilarating two-disc set deftly employs and amplifies Kenton's groundbreaking concepts in splendid recordings made by two of his former sidemen, Ray Starling (Disc 1) and Joel Kaye (Disc 2).
Starling, whose middle name must be “versatile” (he later played piano with the Buddy Rich Big Band), leads his New York Sound Stage Orchestra and plays mellophonium on studio sessions that were recorded in 1965-66 and, like Kaye’s (from 1976 and ’81), abandoned on a shelf for years before they were rescued from an undeserved oblivion by long-time Kenton devotee Bill Lichtenauer and released in 1995 on his Tantara label. It’s a good thing they were, as such invigorating music certainly deserves an audience. Starling’s program encompasses seven instrumentals, recorded in ’66, and four vocals by Annette Sanders, taped a year earlier, with all but two of the charts by the leader (drummer Tommy Check arranged “Come Rain or Come Shine” and his own tangy “Twist of Lemon”). Sanders is a throwback to band singers of the ’30s and ’40s whose articulation was such that one had no problem understanding every word. She has a pleasing voice as well, and is outstanding on Alec Wilder’s “I’ll Be Around,” “Somewhere” (from West Side Story ), Jule Styne / Robert Merrill’s lively “Music That Makes Me Dance” and the too-seldom-heard Burton Lane / Alan Jay Lerner masterpiece, “Too Late Now.” The Sound Stage Orchestra, sounding at times like the “ghost band” Kenton never wanted (that’s a plus, not a minus), is similarly impressive on three standards (“Come Rain,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up,” Hoagy Carmichael’s feisty “Little Old Lady”) and four originals, Check’s “Lemon” and (presumably) three by Starling, “Royal Flush,” the swinging “Ballad Preternatural” and “Genghis Khan.” Starling solos on “Royal Flush” and “Come Rain,” and there are effective statements by trumpeter Bob McCoy (“Ballad”) and Check, trumpeter Joe Shepley and tenor Joe Farrell (“Khan”). Kaye, it should be noted, is a member of the orchestra, playing baritone and bass saxophones, alto flute, bass clarinet and piccolo (as is a young Dale Clevenger, best known these days as principal horn with the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a post he auditioned for and won shortly after this record was made).
Kaye’s Neophonic Orchestra, which embodies the spirit if not the tenor of the Kenton orchestra, opens in a Latin groove with Joel’s zesty original, “Viva Morales,” which explores the charismatic path charted by one of his mentors, the late Johnny Richards, before traveling (Middle)-eastward for “Hummingbird,” the first of two charming melodies by Jim Seals and Dash Crofts (the other is “East of Ginger Tree”). Vocalist Debbie Shapiro Gravitte is on board for three numbers, the best of which is “Michigan Bound” (she’s less successful on Dolly Parton’s ”I’m Burnin’” and Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”). Trombonist Keith O’Quinn is featured on Kaye’s eight-minute showpiece, “Tahirah,” trumpeter John Eckert on Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” tenor Billy Kerr on “Viva Morales,” Stevie Wonder’s “You and I” and the inspired finale, a funky version of “Mars” from Gustav Holtz’s symphonic suite, The Planets. Rounding out the program are Lou Marini’s “Midnight Sailor,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By” and another of Kaye’s beguiling compositions, “Circe.” Other soloists of note include flutist Marini and conguero Victor See Yuen (“Sailor”), trombonist Jack Gale, pianist Lyle Mays and alto Bobby Porcelli.
As noted earlier, there’s an abundance of splendid, hard-swinging music on each of these sessions, and it’s to Tantara’s credit that they’ve been recovered and made available. Big-band aficionados, and especially Kenton admirers who haven’t yet heard these long-neglected gems, should derive great pleasure from them.
Contact: Tantara Productions Inc., 3533 Lake Shore Drive, Joliet, IL 60431. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org ; web site: www.tantaraproductions.com