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Stan Kenton-NOVA Jazz Orchestra / Baker's Dozen Big Band / Danny D'Imperio and the Bloviators

Jack Bowers By

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Stan Kenton Orchestra / NOVA Jazz Orchestra

Double Feature, Vol. 2

Tantara Productions

2012

One of the more difficult aspects of reviewing Tantara's series of impressive salutes to Stan Kenton and his music is knowing where to begin. As on Volume 1 of the label's Double Feature (with Volume 3 already on the street as this is being written), the two-CD set is divided in twain: Disc 1 features the Kenton Orchestra in two live performances from 1959, Disc 2 fourteen seldom-heard Kenton charts by Bill Mathieu (who also wrote the earnest and informative liner notes), performed by the superb Nova Jazz Orchestra from St. Paul, MN (the equally commendable DePaul University Jazz Ensemble was ensconced opposite the Kenton Orchestra on Volume 1). While anyone who knows and loves Kenton's music will be well-versed on what to expect from Disc 1, the real eye-opener (as was true of the DePaul ensemble on Volume 1) is the Nova Orchestra on Disc 2, whose re-creation of the "Kenton sound" is masterful and on the mark.

In addition to furnishing all of the arrangements on Disc 2 and composing five of its numbers, Mathieu, who began writing for Kenton in 1959, arranged "What Is This Thing Called Love," "This Is Always" and "Willow Weep for Me" on Disc 1, which consists of a radio air-check in April 1959 from the Blue Note in Chicago and an appearance in June at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, NJ. As most of the music on Disc 1 is familiar (including "The Big Chase," "My Old Flame," "Get Out of Town" and "I Concentrate on You" from the album Back to Balboa), it can be summarized rather quickly. Suffice to say the '59 band swung about as hard as any Kenton ever fronted, with well-knit charts by Mathieu, Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards, Marty Paich, Bill Holman, Lennie Niehaus, Gene Roland, Joe Coccia and the leader himself. On the Blue Note date, whose sound is not sub-par but variable, the orchestra leads off with one of Holman's finest charts, "What's New" (solos by Niehaus, baritone Billy Root, trumpeter Rolf Ericson and trombonist Kent Larsen).

The same quartet solos on "I Concentrate on You," while elsewhere there are effective statements from tenor Bill Trujillo and trombonist Archie LeCoque. The Red Hill Inn concert, splendidly recorded by Wally Heider, offers more of the same, with baritone Jack Nimitz, in for Root, soloing with Ericson, tenor John Bonnie, trombonist Jimmy Knepper and percussionist Mike Pacheco on Paich's "The Big Chase." Trombones and rhythm are out front on Rugolo's "Interlude," and bass trombonist Bobby Knight is featured on Richards' arrangement of Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town." Also on the menu are Matt Dennis' "The Night We Called It a Day," Ralph Burns' "Early Autumn," the standard "This Is Always," Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and Roland's "Twilight Riff."

Disc 2 opens with a pair of charts written by Mathieu in 1958 as "audition pieces" that were never performed by the Kenton Orchestra. Nor were the dozen arrangements that follow, heard here for the first time as performed by the Nova Jazz Orchestra, ably led by baritone saxophonist Mike Krikava. Whatever reason Kenton had for turning them down, it certainly wasn't owing to a lack of quality but perhaps more a matter of personal taste or musical direction. Kenton knew the temperament and sound he wanted, and not every new arrangement made it into the book. A number of Mathieu's charts did, and he was the sole arranger on one of Kenton's most widely praised albums, Standards in Silhouette. Here, Mathieu's five original compositions are admirably played by the Nova ensemble along with his tasteful versions of nine standards.

There is one guest soloist, long-time Twin Cities stalwart Dave Karr, who sparkles on tenor ("Raff Riff," "A Foggy Day") and baritone sax ("Indian Summer"). Nova has some engaging soloists of its own, namely trumpeters Sten Johnson and John Ahern (enchanting on his feature, "Easy Living"), alto Bob Byers, trombonists Mike Haynes, Mike Larson and Chris Wiley (showcased on "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Magic Lantern" and "I Loves You Porgy," respectively), tenor Paul Peterson and baritone Bill Burton. The rhythm section, bolstered on the Latin numbers ("The Breeze and I," "Frenesi") by Angel Diaz on timbales and congas, is sharp and steady. Disc 2 closes with one of Mathieu's most charming (unrecorded) compositions, the free-wheeling, Mulliganesque "Blues News" (solos by Peterson, Byers and Johnson).

Two volumes to date, and two unequivocal winners for Bill Lichtenauer's Tantara Productions. As is true of baseball and blue skies, you can never have too much Stan Kenton, especially when the themes have never before been recorded. Volume 3 in the series should be another humdinger, as it encompasses more of Kenton's previously unrecorded music (this time from the 1970s) and a performance on Disc 2 by the formidable University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble. If it's anywhere near as exciting as Volumes 1 and 2 it should be a must-have in every big-band library.

Baker's Dozen

Goes to Eleven

BJam Music

2012

Baker's Dozen is of course a play on words, sort of like Danny Ocean and his associates in the film Ocean's Eleven. The "baker" here is leader and baritone saxophonist Paul Baker, and what he and his Austin, TX-based "dozen" have cooked up is an album that teems with music that is open-hearted and sunny, the kind that places a smile on your face and keeps it there. The arrangements, all by Baker (who also wrote every song on the studio date save Robert Skiles' New Orleans-styled "Another Zydobeto"), are reminiscent of the buoyant and hard-swinging charts written for Maynard Ferguson's comparably-sized ensemble in mid-60s by Willie Maiden, Don Sebesky, Mike Abene, Slide Hampton, Don Menza and other masters of the genre.

Owing to the varying schedules of the musicians involved, Goes to Eleven was recorded during a four-month period in 2010 and there are some personnel changes, notably in the trumpet section and among the basses (three are listed). Baker managed to keep the trombone and reed sections intact, while pianist Morris Nelms and drummer Rob Kazenel report for duty on every number. What's important is that no matter who is on board, everyone plays admirably. These surely must be among the finest jazz musicians the Austin area has to offer. The ensemble is tight, the soloists consistently sharp and engaging. Baker solos twice (on "BJam Blues" and "The Woozy Dude Blues") and there are emphatic statements along the way by almost everyone else. They are enriched at every turn by Baker's burnished charts, which swing easily along without ambiguity or surfeit.

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