The Riverside Jazz Stars Jazzy Soundtracks 4: Kean Riverside 1961
Last time out we focused on a jazz version of a 60's Broadway play and we continue in a similar vein this month with an unusual treatment of another long forgotten production. Kean opened in New York City at the Broadway Theater on November 2, 1961 and while its ultimate run was relatively short, it did receive some fine critical notices. Based on the swashbuckling adventures of esteemed 18th century actor Sir Edmund Kean, the play exploits the bawdy behavior of the great Shakespearean actor as he tries to juggle his career while caring on two separate love affairs. With the legendary musical actor Alfred Drake in the lead, Kean's musical score was the work of Robert Wright and George Forrest, old pros in adapting classical themes into operettas, their previous work including Kismet and Song Of Norway.
So the story goes, Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews and tenor man Jimmy Heath traveled to Philadelphia to see Kean on the road and quickly decided that the score would lend itself to a jazz interpretation. Thus we have the album, A Jazz Version of Kean by The Riverside Jazz Stars with arrangements by Heath, Ernie Wilkins, and Melba Liston. At the core of the nine-piece ensemble utilized in the recording are key soloists Heath, Blue Mitchell, and Bobby Timmons and his trio featuring Ron Carter and Tootie Heath.
While none of the pieces are really all that memorable, our three head arrangers do manage to give them somewhat of a spark and the rich sonorities of the brass, augmented marvelously by the French horn of Julius Watkins, make for some inspired listening. Most of the numbers are in a medium swing tempo, with "Sweet Danger" proving to be the ringer of the bunch thanks to the iconic sound of trumpet legend Clark Terry. The previously mentioned Watkins also gets a brief moment in the solo spotlight on "To Look Upon My Love," a number that also boasts stellar assistance from Mitchell and Timmons.
A few numbers stray from the established groove, such as the ballad "Penny Plain," a clip clop riff alluding to the fact that in the play a street vendor sings this number as he sells his wares-photos of Edmund Kean. Both "Elena" and "Willow, Willow, Willow" toy with Afro-Latin grooves in spots, the latter also sporting a moment where Mitchell and Heath eloquently trade choruses back and forth in dialogue fashion.
Arguably one of the rarer items from the Riverside catalog, A Jazz Version of Kean is valuable for the contributions of Jimmy Heath, Blue Mitchell, and Bobby Timmons, not to mention the arranging talents of Heath, Wilkins, and Liston. In crisp and glorious mono, this smallish ensemble sounds much more like a big band thanks to careful scoring. While not a groundbreaking album in any way, it certainly would be worth the efforts to make this one available once again as an OJC reissue.