There's no question that Stan Kenton
led one of the more successful and popular orchestras of the storied Big Band Era, winning various yearly polls while drawing large crowds to his jazz concerts and dance performances from coast to coast. But Kenton always wanted something more: to enlighten as well as entertain. Music, he felt, should be cerebral as well as visceral. And so he formed the Neophonic Orchestra to play the sort of forward-looking jazz he felt many listeners might welcome and appreciate. Results were mixed at best. While some listeners did respond well to the new sounds, many others including some critics were unimpressed or even unkind, and Kenton's efforts to sustain a concert orchestra, while artistically ambitious, were never financially viable.
Undaunted by the lukewarm reception, Kenton forged ahead, never abandoning the concept or his hope that audiences would sooner or later come to accept and admire his innovative point of view. Concert Kenton
presents in five "acts" a concise overview of the Kenton orchestra's "progressive" side, complete with strings, mellophoniums, cello, tympani and shifting time signatures, in concerts from 1948 to 1975. Besides Kenton himself, the arrangers include Pete Rugolo
, Manny Albam
, Bill (before he was William) Russo, Neal Hefti and Johnny Richards
. After Kenton's opening theme, recast here as "Artistry Jumps," Rugolo has Act I, "Progressive Jazz" (from 1948) to himself, arranging "Elegy for Alto" (with a rare solo appearance by George Weidler) and fiery "Machito" (solos by trombonists Milt Bernhart
and Harry DiVito) and trumpeters Chico (Alfred) Alvarez
and Buddy Childers
), closing with the Kenton piano feature, "Theme to the West."
Act II, "Innovations in Modern Music," from 1951, introduces vocalist June Christy
, alto saxophonist Art Pepper
and cellist Gregory Bemko in arrangements by Rugolo, Albam, Russo and Kenton. Pepper is superb on Albam's percussion-heavy "Samana," Christy uneasy and out of her comfort zone on Rugolo's dark arrangements of "I'll Remember April" and "Gloomy Sunday," somewhat more loose on his treatment of "How High the Moon." Bemko is the soloist on Russo's aptly named "Gregory Bemko." Act III, "Mellophoniums: Adventures in Time" (from August '63) contains but two numbers, the ethereal "Artemis and Apollo" and tumultuous "Apercu" (featuring alto Gabe Baltazar
), Act IV only one, The L.A. Neophonic's three-movement "Opus for Tympani" from 1975, which follows brief remarks by a weary-sounding Kenton about the Neophonic Orchestra. Act V, from 1971, consists of Bill Fritz' probative "A Listening," featuring alto Quin Davis
, and Lee Reynolds' brassy, propulsive arrangement of "Poinciana," on which trombonist Dick Shearer
, trumpeter Gary Pack
and drummer John Von Ohlen
are the soloists.
If nothing else, the music on Concert Kenton
reaffirms the assumption that Kenton's faith in "exploratory jazz" was uncompromising but more or less ahead of its time. Here is evidence to support both sides of the debate. Either you'll warm to what Kenton was aiming for or it will leave you unmoved. There is no middle ground. On a closing note, the concerts have been well-preserved and sound quality is by and large respectable.
Act I, Progressive Jazz—Artistry Jumps; Elegy for Alto; Machito; Theme to the West. Act
II, Innovations in Modern Music—Theme; Samana; I’ll Remember April; Gloomy Sunday;
How High the Moon; Love for Sale; Gregory Bemko; Salute; Theme. Act III,
Mellophoniums—Commencement; Artemis and Apollo; Apercu. Act IV, L.A. Neophonic
—Stan speaks about the Neophonic Orchestra. Opus for Tympani (First Movement /
Second Movement / Third Movement). Act V, 1971—A Listening; Poinciana.