JJ 05/72: Stan Kenton – Stan Kenton Today

Fifty years ago Hugh Witt observed a more grown-up Britain, where sovereignty was secondary to high-quality jazz performance. First published in Jazz Journal May 1972

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I doubt if I was the only one in Croydon’s Fairfield Hall on Thursday, February 10 this year who felt proud to hear the National Anthem. The rest of the audience too remained rooted to the spot when at any other time they probably would have been rushing for the loos. It was a stirring experience and even if it had more to do with the power of Stan Kenton’s orchestra than with patriotism at least I wanted to stand to attention.

‘The Queen hasn’t heard this yet’, Kenton had said at the end of a great concert. Well, if the Queen ever does hear it I’m sure she will also be delighted to hear it played as if the musicians believe in every note.

The concert had been recorded and afterwards I watched Kenton sit amid the technicians and their machinery listening to a playback of the National Anthem. Five minutes later, in the now empty auditorium, the band was back on stage playing it again for the sake of absolute perfection. This meticulous care and effort, the striving for excellence, has always been a hallmark of Kenton’s career. And even if there have been occasional arguments over his musical directions there has never been any doubt about the quality of his achievements.

It was an exciting concert and, as Ken Hanna writes in his cover notes for these resultant records, it was an especially high spot in a ‘trail of musical triumphs in Europe’. Hanna, long a Kenton musician, adds: ‘The enthusiasm and ecstatic response in the English concerts must attend as a monumental achievement of the tour … the orch­estra and audience were merged in a musical experience which was fascina­ting and thrilling to witness.’

How right he is! The power and drama of the music at the concerts is well captured on these records. The tension builds in some instances to an almost unbelievable level. It is of course a brassy band and there are only fleet­ing passages when one is fully aware of the equally excellent saxophone sec­tion. The drumming of John Von Ohlen and Ramon Lopez too is as thrilling as big band percussion can be. And while some listeners may agree that the programme tends to be over-dependent on explosively violent Latin-influenced music, the excitement never flags to the concert’s final tumultuous chord.

From the beginning of the first record on What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life one has a feeling of expectation as Kenton’s piano leads into a sombre brass passage which introduces the splendid alto saxophone of Quin Davis before an orchestral crescendo subsides into an ending of typical Kenton sad­ness. It is a monumental introduction to over 90 minutes of the concert con­tained on these two records. Chiapas has that threatening solo trombone which has been part of Kenton’s sound since the days of Milton Bernhardt and there is some sinuous soprano saxophone and more remarkable work by the thunderous Von Ohlen. Malagueña too is a powerful performance of a tune that might have been written for Ken­ton. One usually has reservations about the re-creation of past triumphs but happily they do not apply here.

Intermission Riff sounds very fresh with its aggressive trombones, trumpets in space and another invigorating alto solo; Opus In Pastels retains the period charm of its forerunner; Artistry In Per­cussion has some spectacular brass fanfares; Interlude has interesting con­trasts between piano and brass which invite no undue comparisons with the past. Neither is the inevitable Peanut Vendor a disappointment, with its added flute part and jaunty trombone passages.

Kentonia is sprinkled with occasional curiosities and the latest of these is Walk Softly, a Johnny Richards song in which Kenton speaks the lyrics. Words written for singing often seem trite when spoken and this is no exception although there is a certain poignance about the performance. Another cur­iosity is an amusing version of Take The ‘A’ Train.

Although the glories of the 19-strong ensemble bring the greatest delights there are some notable soloists, particularly altoist Davis, well-known here through his appearances with Buddy Rich’s orchestra. He is heard at length in one of the newer pieces, Hank Levy’s Ambivalence. This long performance builds from a doom-laden introduction to boiling point. Spurred by bassist Worster and drummer Von Ohlen, Davis’ solo unwinds itself effectively. It is one of the concert highspots.

Fringe Benefit is a fairly tense read­ing but has its swinging moments and more alto and Yesterdays has a long and rhapsodic tenor solo by Richard Torres.Torres is heard again on a fast-moving and eventful solo in Bill Holman’s Málaga, a dark Spanish drama which changes mood to drop neatly into a well-tailored jazz rhythm. Bogota features Lopez in what must be one of the most spectacular conga displays ever recorded. The pleasing melody de­velops to a superb climax as Von Ohlen adds his drums to Lopez’ rhythm. Von Ohlen may be one of the most powerful drummers in the world but that doesn’t prevent him from being a most imagina­tive artist.

By the time I reached the Artistry In Rhythm finale on these records I was still just as ‘merged with the orchestra’ as I had been at the concert. And after rehearing Kenton’s National Anthem all I can hope is that next year he will treat us to Land Of Hope And Glory.

Discography
What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life; Chiapas; Opus In Pastels; Malagueña (21 min) – Artistry In Percussion; Yesterdays; Fringe Benefit; Bogota (23 min) – Intermission Riff; Ambivalence; Interlude; Peanut Vendor (24 min) – Málaga; Walk Softly; Take The ‘A’ Train; Artistry In Rhythm; God Save The Queen (25 min)
Stan Kenton (pno): Mike Vax, Dennis Noday, Jay Saunders, Ray Brown. Joe Marcinkiewicz (tpt); Dick Shearer, Mike Jamieson, Fred Carter, Mike Wallace, Phil Herring (tmb): Quin Davis, Richard Torres, Kim Frizell, Willie Maiden, Chuck Carter (saxes): John Worster (bs); John Von Ohlen (dm); Ramon Lopez (conga). London, February 1972.
(Decca DKL 3/1 & 3/2 – £3.49)