Mart Kenney, Canada’s answer to Benny Carter, has been playing the saxophone for more than seventy of his ninety years and leading a dance band nearly as long, having formed Mart Kenney’s Western Gentlemen in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early ’30s before he was old enough to vote. March 12, 2000, was designated “Mart Kenney Day” by the mayor of Vancouver in honor of Kenney’s 90th birthday. The band itself celebrated by recording this Swinging Musical Showcase, proving decisively that Kenney has lost little of the drive and enthusiasm that earned him renown as of Canada’s most popular and beloved bandleaders, even forcing him from “retirement” in the ’60s when his many fans insisted that he return to the bandstand, where he has been ever since. The New Ballroom Orchestra plays music for dancing, with some brief improvisations inlaid to add spice, a formula that has enabled Kenney to draw music–lovers into his orbit and keep them there for longer than most of us have been alive. The full orchestra is supplanted on five selections (“Berkeley Square,” “As Time Goes By,” “Alone Together,” “Autumn in New York,” “The Nearness of You”) by a quintet (with Kenney’s creamy–smooth pre–Swing Era alto — or soprano? it sure sounds like one, even though the liner notes say alto — in the spotlight), while vocalist Priscilla Wright is featured on three numbers (“Cool, Really Cool,” “’Deed I Do,” “Swing It, Baby”), the late Norma Locke on two (“P.S. I Love You” and Kenney’s theme song, “The West, a Nest & You Dear”). Among the reasons for the band’s continuing success is Kenney’s astute choice of sidemen; Rob McConnell, Canada’s best–known Jazz big–band leader, is among its alumni, while the present ensemble numbers in its ranks several of the country’s most accomplished players including two of McConnell’s longtime stalwarts, trumpeter Arnie Chycoski and trombonist Ian McDougall. McDougall, saxophonists Jack Stafford and Campbell Ryga, trumpeter Don Clark and pianist Bob Doyle are skillful ad–libbers who make sure the band keeps swinging between ensemble passages. But this is first and foremost dance music, and one can almost envision happy couples gently swaying to and fro as Kenney's topnotch ensemble fashions one lovely melody after another. As rhythm is the heart and soul of dance, Kenney risks no missteps there, employing a first-class section (Doyle, guitarist Ihor Kukurudza, bassist Torben Oxbol) that is anchored securely by drummer Gerry Adamus. The quintet numbers are equally persuasive, with Kenney's alto (or soprano) gaily decorating "Berkeley Square" and the other evergreens. Among the honors that have come Kenney's way are his induction into British Columbia's Entertainment Hall of Fame, his acceptance in 1993 of the Toronto Musicians' Association's "Musician of Distinction" award, and his guest appearances with many of Canada's leading orchestras including the Winnipeg Symphony. During World War II the Parade of Spotlight Bands in Canada featured only one ensemble, Mart Kenney's, and the band was showcased again during Air Canada's 50th anniversary celebration at Expo '86. On hearing Kenney's band perform, one ceases to marvel at his continuing popularity begins to wonder instead why it isn't even more widespread, as the New Ballroom Orchestra evokes memories of such celebrated American dance bands as those led by Ray Anthony, the Elgarts, Les Brown, Harry James, Charlie Barnet and the Dorsey brothers, to name but a few. But no matter; Canadians at least have been able to hear and appreciate Mart Kenney's marvelous dance music for about seventy years, and that is in itself a bounty beyond any price.
Track Listing: Duke Ellington Medley; Cool, Really Cool; Berkeley Square; Big Band Broadcast Blues;
Personnel: Paul Baron, Henry Christian, Stew Barnett, Arnie Chycoski, Don Clark, trumpets; Mart Kenney, Bob McDonald, Jack Stafford, Al Wold, Campbell Ryga, reeds; Ian McDougall, Dennis Esson, Jack Fulton, Bill Trussell, trombones; Bob Doyle, piano; Ihor Kukurudza, guitar; Torben Oxbol, bass; Gerry Adamus, drums; Priscilla Wright, Norma Locke, vocals.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.