William Russo, who used to be just plain Bill when he was playing trombone and writing for the Stan Kenton Orchestra nearly half a century ago, is now a professor of music at Chicago’s Columbia College and conductor of the splendid Chicago Jazz Ensemble which recorded Kenton a la Russo in concert last February at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase. The program combines a quartet of Russo’s compositions for Kenton’s ear–shattering ensemble (“Frank Speaking,” “230 North, 820 West,” “Portrait of a Count,” “Blues Before and After”), his 1953 arrangement of “Lover Man” and two more recent Russo compositions (“Resist,” from 1965, and “Road Runner,” from 1998) with five Kenton staples from the 1940s — “Ain’t No Misery in Me,” “The Peanut Vendor,” “Shoo Fly Pie,” “Collaboration” and “Eager Beaver.” Russo throws the listener off–balance at the outset with a surprisingly laid–back reading of “Frank Speaking,” written in 1952 for trombone master Frank Rosolino. Russo says this is the way it was meant to be played. Tom Garling, sitting in for the work’s ill–starred namesake, is no Rosolino (there has been only one) but “speaks” marvelously in his own way, and the piece is a joy to hear, even though the Showcase’s acoustics do the CJO no favors. Russo’s other compositions also shine brightly thanks to radiant solos by Garling and alto saxophonist Pat Mallinger (“230 North, 820 West”); trumpeter Scott Hall (subbing stylishly for Conte Candoli on “Portrait of a Count”); Mallinger and sure–fingered trumpeter Orbert Davis (the boppish “Blues Before and After”); Hall, baritone Tim Hogarth and bassist Dan Anderson (“Resist”) and tenor Jim Gailloreto (“Road Runner”). “Resist,” part of a Jazz requiem for orchestra and chorus, was played by Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra in 1966 after a premiere by the first Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Warren Kime Singers. There are no singers this time, but there are some interesting twists and turns that hold one’s interest from end to end. Two of the earlier Kenton works, “Ain’t No Misery in Me” and "Shoo Fly Pie," the first written by Gene Roland, the second orchestrated by him, feature vocalists Vikki Stokes ("Misery") and Bobbi Wilsyn ("Shoo Fly") while "Lover Man" is a showcase for Mallinger's ardent alto. Pete Rugolo's "Collaboration," in a romantic reading by Russo that features pianist John Gunther's unaccompanied introduction and luminous 'bone passages by Garling, sounds far more contemporary than its 1947 origin would suggest, while Kenton's classic "Eager Beaver" includes productive solos by Gunther and tenor Tim McNamara. Although I was slow to warm to Kenton a la Russo, the heat has become more intense with every hearing. Give it a try; perhaps you'll apprehend its warmth as I have.
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Track Listing: Frank Speaking; Ain
Personnel: William Russo, conductor; Pat Mallinger, Tyrone Tatum, alto sax; Jim Gailloreto, Tim McNamara, tenor sax; Ted Hogarth, baritone sax; Mark Olen, Orbert Davis, Scott Hall, Art Hoyle, Chuck Parris, trumpet; Audrey Morrison, Tom Garling, Steve Berry, Tracy Kirk, Fritz Hocking, trombone; Thomas Gunther, piano; Frank Dawson, guitar, Dan Anderson, bass; Frank Parker, drums; Alejo Poveda, congas; Bobbi Wilsyn, Vikki Stokes, vocals.