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Mike Vax: Stan Kenton Alumni Band: Have Band Will Travel

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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Stan Kenton Alumni Band
Have Band Will Travel
Summit Records

In the golden era of television, the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a popular Western series titled Have Gun Will Travel. It starred Richard Boone as the San Francisco-based Paladin, a dressed all in black (but good guy), cowboy private eye. This gunslinger scoured the West righting wrongs and besting opponents with his intelligence and lightning fast pistol draw.

Have Band Will Travel, recorded during the Stan Kenton Alumni Band's 2009 tour directed by Mike Vax, likewise slings swing and kicks ass, offering outstanding big band jazz in the finest Kenton mold. The result is an experience that Paladin would probably have called "rootin' tootin.'" And it is.

Since 2000, Vax, former lead trumpet with the Stan Kenton Orchestra (and himself a Bay Area resident), has annually brought together SKO alums to barnstorm high schools and other venues, performing Kenton classics and providing clinics for students (a legacy instilled by Kenton via his own Kenton Stage Band Camps). Make no mistake, however, this is no "geezerhood" ghost band playing worn-outs in Gabby Hayes-populated ghost towns. Vax and his gang ride here marvelously through 14 invigorating selections that feature—as might be expected from Kenton progeny— ballsy, screaming brass, tight woodwind solos and beautifully prismatic ensemble arrangements from masters Lennie Niehaus, Johnny Richards, Bob Florence, et al. The result is a worthy musical salute to the genius that was Stan Kenton, and to the caliber of his musicians and arrangers then and now.

Recorded over a series of performances, Have Band Will Travel features truly outstanding playing and some spectacular arranging. Nothing here bores or disappoints. The ensemble plays with superb tightness, a reverential sense of dynamics and intonation, and a high energy level. The solos all sparkle. Of particular note is the marvelous solo work of trumpeter's trumpeter Don Rader, whose creative energy and sheer jazz brilliance are highlighted throughout. His duel on "Joint Tenancy" with fine trumpeter and arranger Steve Huffsteter is outstanding. These trumpet guns smoke. Tenor saxophonists Alex Murzyn and Pete Gallio also send up intelligent solo efforts when spotlighted. Joel Kaye's huge baritone booms heavily. Pianist Liz Sesler-Beckman's touch and harmonic sense is perfection. Drummer Gary Hobbs and bassist Chris Symer drive this herd hard.

Vax and outstanding ex-Kenton and Maynard Ferguson lead trumpeter Dennis Noday split the challenging lead trumpet book and infuse the ensemble with a fire from note one. Vax also solos with significant bravado, chops and style on "El Viento Caliente" and "Crescent City Stomp." Lead alto saxophonist Kim Richmond solos (and arranges) superbly and also spearheads a fine sax section that melds beautifully with the glorious-sounding trombones. Adding to the mix are two swinging vocal selections featuring talented Ginger Berglund and Scott Whitfield ("This Could Be the Start of Something Big" and "Our Garden"). Whitfield's solo efforts are potent and reminiscent of Kentonians Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino.

As might be expected with location recording, in less than sublime acoustic venues, there are a few minor audio variances and the piano's sound qualities vary. However, given the logistics involved, the recording is predominantly fine.

Around the same time as the aforementioned Western, there was a series of magazine advertisements that depicted celebrities wearing beautiful Blackgama fur coats with the banner, "What becomes a legend most?" With this terrific CD, the genius and legacy of Stan Kenton certainly will remain legendary. Let's hope that brilliant Boss Vax rolls 'em up and moves 'em out again for 2010. Hee-ah!

Tracks: The New Intermission Riff; Softly As I Leave You; El Viento Caliente; Long Ago & Far Away; Artemis & Apollo; Five & Dime; This Could Be the Start of Something Big; Our Garden; Swing House; Tonight; Joint Tenancy; Invitation; The Shadow of Your Smile; Crescent City Stomp; Crescent City Stomp (radio edit).

Personnel: Mike Vax: leader, trumpet, flugelhorn; Dennis Noday: trumpet, flugelhorn; Paul Von Adam: trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Huffsteter: trumpet, flugelhorn; Don Rader: trumpet, flugelhorn; Roy Wiegand: trombone; Dale DeVoe: trombone; Scott Whitfield: trombone, vocals; Kenny Shroyer: bass trombone; Mike Suter: bass trombone, tuba; Kim Richmond: alto sax, soprano sax, flute; Keith Kaminski: alto sax, baritone sax, flute; Pete Gallio: tenor sax, flute; Alex Murzyn: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Joel Kaye: baritone sax, bass sax, alto flute, bass flute; Liz Sesler-Beckman: piano; Chris Symer: bass; Gary Hobbs: drums; Dee Huffsteter: percussion; Ginger Berglund: vocals.

Title: Stan Kenton Alumni Band: Have Band Will Travel | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Summit Records



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