Lennie Niehaus is best known these days for his Hollywood film scores. He came up on the 1950's California scene and joined the Kenton band, replacing Lee Konitz as the primary alto soloist. After establishing himself as a player he began writing for the band as well. Simultaneously he led a series of fondly-remembered small band (5 to 8 pieces) recordings with other Kenton band members of the era.
These recordings were built around Niehaus' writing. His style was typical of the time: lightly swinging sound, horns playing clever harmonies, simple thematic material extensively orchestrated, short solos. (Marty Paich, Gerry Mulligan, and Shorty Rogers also wrote with a similar light feel.) Niehaus usually voiced the four horns to approximate a big band, but as a change of pace he lightly parodied a chamber music feel: "Three of a Kind" (a three-sax fugue), and "Belle of the Ball" (converted from a waltz to 4/4 to hammer home the wit). The best tune was "Elbow Room", a 44-bar AABA construction of blues with a bridge.
Forty-five years later it is Niehaus' soloing that stands up. (More than on the other records in the series he takes extended solos here.) His spontaneously composed lines are almost always more interesting than his writing. For one thing he was rhythmically advancedwhen he soloed he didn't have to restrict his accents to the less modern sensibilities of the other players. He has a sense of adventure and freshness. Niehaus sometimes adds a hint of tension by momentarily playing in a different key. His occasional wide intervals (suddenly going from a high note to a low note or vice-versa) also have a subtly unsettling effect. The other horns often play written lines behind him, but he is freer and more creative accompanied only by bass and drums. Bill Perkins and Jimmy Giuffre solo competently, but at nowhere near the depth of their later playing.
Thou Swell; I Wished On the Moon; Knee Deep; Fond Memories; Take It From Me; Belle of the Ball; As Long as I Live; Ill Wind; Three of a Kind; Elbow Room.
Lennie Niehaus-alto saxophone; Bill Perkins-tenor saxophone, flute; Jimmy Giuffre-baritone saxophone; Stu Williamson-trumpet, valve trombone; Buddy Clark-bass; Shelly Manne-drums.