Stan Kenton’s Neglected Masterpiece

Stan Kenton Dee Barton

STAN KENTON CONDUCTS THE JAZZ COMPOSITIONS OF DEE BARTON / BARTON: Man; Lonely Boy; The Singing Oyster; Dilemma; Three Thoughts; A New Day; Woman / Mike Price, Carl Leach, Jim Kartchner, Jay Daversa, John Madrid, tp; Dick Shearer, Tom Senff, Tom Whittaker, tb; Jim Amlotte, bs-tb; Ray Reed, a-sax/fl; Kim Richmond, Mike Altschul, t-sax; Mike Vaccaro, bar-sax; Earl Dumler, bar-sax/bs-sax; Stan Kenton, p/cond; Don Bagley, bs; Graham Ellis, tuba; Dee Barton, dm. / Capitol Jazz 094639673223

For a quarter-century, 1943-1967, Stan Kenton recorded exclusively for and was identified with Capitol Records. They were his “home,” and for years the label promoted him proudly as the banner of modern jazz. But a funny thing happened after Kenton’s “West Side Story” was nominated for a Grammy in the early 1960s: his sales numbers fell off. With free jazz and, a bit later, rock-jazz fusion taking over the field, Kenton was suddenly seen as old-fashioned and reactionary. The man who had been a nettle in the side of popular music over the years was now suddenly seen as “safe,” and therefore no longer contemporary or edgy. Thus, shortly after this album was recorded in December 1967 and released in early 1968, Capitol failed to renew his contract. Kenton asked them to reissue some of the many recordings they still had in the vaults but they refused. The upshot was that he started his own label, Creative World, and started issuing them himself. This caused a lawsuit from Capitol and a permanent rift between the two that never healed.

But what was worse was that this album, one of his best, was also dismissed by critics as uninteresting and tepid. In particular, they criticized his new band, made up almost entirely of young and”unproven” talent, as being unworthy of Kenton. The truth was that he was relatively broke at this point, having poured a great deal of his own money into the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra which wasn’t even really “his” except that he was chosen as its music director. But more to the point, most of these soloists are actually very good. They play solos that fit the overall structure of drummer Dee Barton’s compositions, which in themselves are among the finest his band ever played.

Of course, there were many listeners, myself included, who viewed Kenton with a grain of salt. We couldn’t stand the constant blaring and screaming of his “heavy”-sounding brass sections, but at the same time we recognized that he took a modern-classical view towards jazz. He heard jazz as an orchestral concept in which every facet of the composition, arrangement and solos interacted in such a way as to produce a cohesive whole. This was what drew us back to Kenton again and again, despite the fact that no matter how quietly the piece would begin we just knew that the trumpets would start screaming sooner or later.

But to return to this album: the critics were wrong, and not just wrong about the quality of the solos. They were wrong about the quality of the music. Barton, one of the rare drummer-composers in jazz, wrote here some very interesting and sophisticated scores utilizing a number of interesting techniques. In addition to asymmetric rhythms, these include canon form, contrasting sections that play against one another, and a use of extended harmonies within the orchestral scoring. Granted, this is not free jazz or even particularly “progressive” for its time when compared to the contemporary work of Charles Mingus or John Coltrane, but it is still remarkably well written, well crafted, and fairly original music.

Indeed, the only problem I have with the album is that several of these pieces tend to sound very similar to one another. Kenton tried to produce some variety by juxtaposing pieces that weren’t the same between those that are, for instance, the quasi-Latin-sounding Lonely Boy following the opening Man. The Singing Oyster begins with a pleasant but quirky tune in 3/4, but this quickly morphs into a regular 4/4, against which the opening tune is played against a muted trumpet solo by the rest of the brass section, then developed by them in written passages. Later on, we hear the opening theme repeated by the saxes, but now it is played against a 4/4 rhythm.

Dilemma opens with a quixotic series of held chords, over which an open trumpet and alto sax play a strange figure before moving into a rollicking if fragmented tune with diminished chords underneath at first before being resolved for the swinging central section. A very interesting, somewhat “outside” tenor sax solo follows while the trombones punctuate the proceedings. The strange opening tune and harmonies now coalesce into a somewhat cohesive progression as a florid and quite interesting trumpet solo emerges. This is really fine music. Three Thoughts opens with a bass solo, Barton’s drums underpinning it with an entirely different rhythm, then low-held sax notes act as a ground bass under an elusive, smeared brass tune. But here the ensuing melody sounds a bit too much like the central section of The Singing Oyster, leading to my sole complaint as noted above, that some of these pieces sound alike.

A New Day, like Dilemma, begins with soft, slightly ominous held chords (this type of opening seems to have been a trademark of Barton’s scores) before opening up into the “development” section, which in this case retains its quietude despite a fairly busy trumpet solo that eventually leads to the underlying bass, drums and orchestra becoming busier by degrees until they are playing at full volume and a much faster tempo. Woman, also sporting a quiet opening, moves into a quirky 6/8 beat with the stresses broken up irregularly. The bass enters the fray while muter trumpet, clarinet and flute play an odd melodic figure quietly. Then the opening chords return, now with flute obbligato above, eventually leading to a sudden key change and—with the flute still playing, but now jazzier and more rhythmically—a brisker, “punchier” version of the starting melody. The orchestra comes to a halt while the flute continues for a while a cappella, then the sequence restarts. This is a fine piece, and a quite interesting one.

In these performances the band’s tendency to screech is somehow held in check, and when the brass does scream it somehow seems much more in character with the surrounding material than in earlier Kenton records. Eventually he would find even more inventive scores in the work of Hank Levy and Chick Corea, but considering its time and place The Jazz Compositions of Dee Barton are a very fine and hitherto unappreciated chapter in the Kenton band’s saga.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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