Late, Live Kenton Surprises and Thrills

Kenton 01

THE STUTTGART EXPERIENCE / H. LEVY: Chiapas; Ambivalence. LOI: Theme from “Love Story.” SIMÓNS: The Peanut Vendor. GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (excerpt). B. HOLMAN: Malaga. WETZEL: Intermission Riff. WEBB: MacArthur Park. LECUONA: Malagueña, KENTON: Artistry in Rhythm / Stan Kenton and his Orchestra: Mike Vax, Ray Brown, Dennis Noday, Jay Saunders, Joe Marcinkiewicz, tp; Dick Shearer, Mike Jamieson, Fred Carter, tb; Mike Wallace, bs-tb; Philip Herring, bs-tb/tuba; Quinn Davis, a-sax/fl; Richard Torres, t-sax/fl; Kim Frizell, t-sax; William “Willie” Malden, bar-sax; Chuck Carter, fl/bs-sax/sop-sax; Kenton, pn; John Worster, bs; John von Ohlen, dm; Ramón Lopez, conga / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-457 (live: Stuttgart, January 17, 1972)

It’s extremely rare that I review two recordings by the same artist within a week of each other, particularly a deceased artist (and a controversial one) such as Stan Kenton, but this new release of an old concert was just too good not to write about. It’s intersesting to compare the band’s lineup here to the one he used in December 1967. just slightly over four years earlier, on his Jazz Compositions of Dee Barton disc. The only two musicians in common between the two albums are Kenton on piano and trombonist Dick Shearer. Even drummer Dee Barton, who contributed the arrangement here of MacArthur Park, has been replaced.

Considering that the 1960s and ‘70s saw Kenton fall out of favor in the jazz world (because he didn’t keep up with the newest trends), plus the fact that his band had bombed twice earlier in Germany (a poorly attended 1963 concert tour and a lukewarm reception at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1969), his success on this January 1972 evening in Stuttgart is amazing. I would say it was doubly so when you consider that, for whatever reason, Kenton decided to play it safe with a repertoire split equally between new material and old chestnuts from the 1940s. What is interesting here, however, is that the poorest arrangement and performance is of one of the new pieces (Jim Webb’s Hippie-era surprise hit MacArthur Park, surely one of the worst pieces of dreck ever penned by a human being), while each of the earlier works—The Peanut Vendor, Rhapsody in Blue, Intermission Riff, Malagueña and Artistry in Rhythm—is re-imagined in a fresh, new way (Rhapsody in Blue given a facelift by arranger Bill Holman), and the solos are considerably lengthier, and more integral to each piece, than on the old recordings.

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel that the Kenton band simply felt euphoric on this day. You really can’t tell from Kenton’s reaction: though he thanks the audience for their applause, and is gracious as always, he really doesn’t sound particularly upbeat (in fact, he had just recently overcome a serious illness and was probably a bit dragged out). Yet his own solos, and the playing of the band, have a relaxation that simply was not evident in every edition of the Kenton band. Granted, he had undergone several facelifts over the decades, his most swinging bands generally being regarded as the 1953-55 group that included arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and the early-‘60s Mellophonium band, but this group has its own identity. Moreover, the usual screeching of the trumpets is minimized somewhat by the spacious sound in the Beethovensaal where the concert took place. One can, at last, fully appreciate the Kenton orchestra’s good qualities and focus less on the annoying aspects of the orchestra.

And make no mistake, these are truly great performances. I’m not certain if the flute soloist on The Peanut Vendor is Quinn Davis, Richard Torres or Chuck Carter, but whoever it is really flies here and adds greatly to the overall quality of the playing. Likewise, nearly every trumpet, saxophone and trombone solo is a jewel as well. For whatever reason, the band was in extraordinarily good spirits that night, possibly due to the rocket-like propulsion of powerhouse drummer John van Ohlen. It also didn’t hurt to have two new pieces by the gifted and often-underrated jazz writer Hank Levy in their book at the time (Chiapas and Ambivalence), a great new piece by Bill Holman (Malaga) and an arrangement of that stupid Love Story theme by Willie Malden that actually made good music out of it. Malden took the insipid five-note repeated motif (you really couldn’t even call it a “theme”) and used it as a riff behind the soloists, who in turn improvised on it, thus knitting the piece together. It’s an astonishing transformation.

Among the credited soloists are baritone saxist Chuck Carter on Rhapsody in Blue and Carter on flute in Ambivalence and bassist John Worster in Intermission Riff, and they are splendid. Kenton is also in rare form, sounding relaxed for a change (he was often stiff in performance), expanding his opening solo in Artistry in Rhythm to considerable lengths.

All in all, a truly surprising and excellent concert from a bandleader often maligned and neglected nowadays.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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