Saturday, October 30, 2010

Stan Kenton : New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm – Part 1

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There can be little doubt Stan Kenton saw himself as a musical visionary—a questing, exploratory spirit—and it's a tribute to his strength of purpose no less than his charisma that he was able to impose his vision on, and carry with him so many others on his quest.

Then too, despite whatever one might think of his music, particularly as it has held up in light of all that has transpired in jazz since he first appeared on the scene, it's clear that he succeeded in his major goals. It is partially as a result of his efforts that jazz is now accorded respect as a serious music, perhaps America's major contribution to world music; that the locus of the music has shifted from the nightclub to the concert hall and festival stage; that the synthesis with European concert music he envisioned has been enabled to take place in the work of others who followed in his wake; and that the music has had its horizons widened through various of the concepts he pioneered and set in motion. That he enriched the vocabulary of jazz and changed the character of the jazz orchestra are undeniable; one simply has to listen to those that came into being after him to have this confirmed. …

If he was nothing else, Kenton surely was a catalyst who drew to himself large numbers of gifted artists and, through his example, inspired them to give of their best.”
- Pete Welding

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This is where I came into Stan Kenton “World,” although at the time I had no idea that it was the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm era or that there were such periodizations of Stan’s music.

Having heard many of the earlier hits by the band -Concerto to End All Concertos, Collaboration, and Intermission Riff – to name a few, I was certainly ready for more when I encountered Stan’s Contemporary Concepts [Capitol, 1955] and Back to Balboa [Capitol, 1957] albums.

These were the Kenton albums that introduced me to Sam Noto’s beautiful sound in the “Jazz” trumpet chair and the power and precision of the lead trumpet work of Al Porcino and Ed Leddy.

The trademark, vibrato-less Kenton trombone sound was, by now, well-developed and in the capable hands of the likes of Bob Fitzpatrick, Kent Larson and Kenny Shroyer.

Richie Kamuca and particularly Bill Perkins took Lester Young’s hollow sound to new levels on tenor sax while Charlie Mariano’s poignant wail and Lennie Niehaus’ beautifully constructed long lines on alto saxophone made my heart sing and leap, respectively.

These were the albums that introduced me to the slash and bash style of Mel Lewis’ big band drumming; has any big band drum ever played better fills or dropped more well-placed bombs?

But the music on these albums and on the other recordings that were a part of the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm period [roughly 1952-1958/59] was different than the 78s I had listen to from the 1940s in that it was arranged more linearly and the sound from these arrangements flowed more smoothly to the ear.

All of the usual Kenton “fireworks” – the screaming, high register trumpets, the huge, fat trombone sound anchored by two bass ‘bones, the big cymbal splashes – were still all there, but now you could pop your fingers and tap your foot to the charts on Contemporary Concepts and Back to Balboa in a way that was more characteristic of the big bands led by Woody Herman and Count Basie.

As I came to later understand, the reasons for this change in the sound of the Kenton band had everything to do with the arrangers that Stan chose to work with at this time: people like Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Marty Paich. To some extent Bill Russo, Gene Roland and Johnny Richards also belong to this group although they along with Stan and Pete Rugolo would continue to contribute the band’s more customary, orchestral arrangements.

Stan’s music began to move; it acquired more of a metronomic “feel” to it. The arrangements by Mulligan, Holman and Paich had a lighter sound with more of a middle texture that brought the saxophone section more prominently into the band’s arrangements.

To my ears, Bill Russo’s compositions and arrangements represented a transitional style between the Concert Kenton [what Will Friedwald refers to as “… Kenton’s obsession with artmusik”] and the less grandiose looser feel particularly of the Contemporary Concepts album which would largely be made up of the arrangements of Bill Holman [with a tip-of-the-hat to Gerry Mulligan and Marty Paich].

Pete Welding in his insert notes to the CD reissue of New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm offers these thoughts on Kenton’s music at this time:

“To place things in perspective, this particular edition of the Kenton orchestra followed on the heels of the ambitious 40-piece "Innovations In Modern Music" concert ensemble Stan had mounted in early 1950 after a year's sabbatical during which he had completely rethought his musical philosophy. He viewed the larger orchestra, …, as the best means of re­establishing his primacy in vanguard musical thinking. A corollary aim was that by playing only concert engagements, the band's previous ties with dance music would be clearly and finally severed and Kenton would be freed to concentrate on the "serious" concert music he wished to pursue to the exclusion of all else.

While he might have been successful in putting dance music behind him, Kenton soon found the "Innovations" orchestra to be a mixed blessing. He persevered with it on and off for much of the ensuing two years but ultimately the formidable logistics and financial burdens involved in maintaining such a large ensemble proved much too daunting even for him, and the orchestra was disbanded after only two moderately successful concert tours were concluded and a third, of Europe, was canceled.

A return to the "Progressive Jazz" format led ultimately to the group and approach heard here and an abandonment of the grandiose designs of the "Innovations" orchestra in favor of the lighter textures, greater rhythmic resilience and more conventional—but far more deeply creative and ultimately more satisfying —orchestral approaches followed with such happy distinction by Mulligan, Holman and Russo. Their writing for the band clearly showed that when approached with imagination, wit and resourceful creativity such as they possessed, and a solid, informed knowledge of the conventions of big band jazz, which they also had, the music was anything but moribund or played-out but could course with a plenitude of freshness, invention, vitality and bristling contemporaneity. Certainly these charts do, sounding just as spirited and invigorating today as when they created such a furor of excitement on their release 36 years ago.”

Given the preponderant number of arrangements that Bill Russo and Bill Holman wrote for the band during the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm era, not surprisingly, Mosaic Records elected to label the boxed set it issued of this music as simply Stan Kenton: The Holman and Russo Charts[MD4-136].

Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic has graciously granted copyright permission to JazzProfiles in order that it might reproduce this portion of Will Friedwald’s insert notes to the set.

In order to keep this piece from getting a bit too unwieldy, we have divided Mosiac and Will’s notes into a Part 1 focus on Bill Russo while covering their thoughts on Bill Holman in a following Part 2. Please keep in mind that the influences on the writing of both Russo and Holman were not strictly chronological.

© -Mosaic Records and Will Friedwald. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Most of us who've come along since the '50s read our first objective and usuable appraisal of Kenton in Feather's original Encyclopedia of Jazz, which described his music as operating on three levels. On the bottom level there are low­brow pieces designed to attract the general public. The middle level contains the Kenton band's straight jazz pieces, written by men who also established reputations as major jazz orchestrators before (Gerry Mulligan), during (Shorty Rogers) and after (Bill Holman) their tenures with Kenton - of these, only Pete Rugolo did virtually all of his most significant work as an instrumental jazz orchestrator during his Kenton period (Rugolo's best work as a consistently-inspired arranger for the great vocalists came later).

In Kenton's own point of view, moving up the ladder landed one on the third and highest rung, that of his most deliberate and, in John S. Wilson's term - "arty art" music - composi­tions that both challenged one's ears in terms of tonality one's watches in terms of length, the most famous and infamous being Bob Graettinger's City of Glass. Even the title was imposing enough to scare the hell out of you.
Most of what we read about Kenton tells us that the man himself only really loved his music at that third, highest-browed level, but he produced so much good pop, jazz and dance music that it must have held a strong attraction for him.
With the possible exception of the years when Pete Rugolo served as the band's musical director, the music written for Kenton by Bill Holman and Bill Russo, represents the best that Kenton ever recorded from every possible angle - the three levels of low, high and middle brow as well as the distinction between Kenton's rules and the exceptions to same. They're also Kenton's best ravioli - delectably tasty combinations of the band's familiar starchy pasta sound but containing real meat in the middle!

It's generally oversimplified that Russo wrote mainly serious works and Holman was responsible for the band's swingers; Russo also did "lighter vein" pieces like Bill Blues and Holman also came up with the pompously-titled Theme and Variations (both also arranged standards and vocal features for the band). However, the two Bills do exemplify the two approaches towards appreciating Kenton: Russo wrote music that, to use a fittingly Wagnerian term, represents the ne-plus-ultra of Kenton; Holman took Kenton to the limits of un-Kenton.

Wagner's extra-musical angles - leaving aside the radical misinterpretation of the composer's intentions through a racial point of view by certain 20th-century political regimes -parallel Kenton's in that "Artistry in Rhythm" represents the ultimate expression of the American jazz-pop aesthetic in terms of an Anglo-Saxon patriarchal point of view. There's a further theoretical similarity with many a heavy metal rock band of the '70s and '80s, British or otherwise, which use Nordic icons as part of their visual presentations (stage props and album cover art); not in the sound, since Kenton, even at his worst, always at least made music, but in the complete absence of black or ethnic elements.

Performers from the American east, from Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra or even Kenton's own Vido Musso, brought their Jewish or Italian backgrounds to this Afro-American music no less than the black players of Southern ancestry brought their own collective heritage. The kind of Kenton sound that Bill Russo brought to its highest point, "Kenton-Kenton" suggests not an Aryan arrogance but pride - posing that this is no less the stuff of music for both the head and the feet than the music created by the descendants of those who arrived on American shores after 1700.

The second Bill Russo piece to be recorded by Kenton, Halls of Brass, serves as a striking an example of pure "high Kenton" as any in the band's history. An amazingly together piece to come from a 22-year-old (neither Kenton nor Rugolo created anything comparable until their '30s), we can forgive its young composer his attempts to rocket in so many directions at once since his four years with Kenton would give him a remarkable opportunity to adjust his focus. But far more than Kenton's later direct assault on The Ring and Tannheuser et al, Halls of Brass constitutes a far more successful attempt to bring Wagner and Germanic-period Stravinsky into Kentonian terms. And that's mainly because it has such a strong under­current of teutonic masculinity - a symphony whose primary color is testosterone, it might well be called Balls of Brass.

… Russo's works for the band are thoroughly Kentonian right down to their 'bones (pun), as they continued the Kenton trombone tradition. Of the 40 or so pieces of Russo's (who stayed in the trombone section until 1953) recorded by the band, virtually all use the instrument extensively, in solos and sections. Solitare (Milt Bernhardt), Ennui (Harry Belts), Frank Speaking, I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues and I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good (all Frank Rosolino), Over the Rainbow (Bob Burgess), A Theme of Four Values and Thisbe (both Bob Fitzpatrick) and the unrecorded Kenton arrangement of Aesthete on Clark Street are all trombone features, whereas by contrast he only penned perhaps one or two specialty features apiece for any of the other horns.

On both features for trombones and other instruments, and other multi-solo pieces too, Russo digs juxtaposing the soloist with birds of a feather - the way in Portrait of a Count, hot trumpeter Conte Candoli is accompanied by a section of blaringly open horns, like Fred Astaire in top hat in TOP HAT surrounded by a chorus line of slender, light-footed dancing men in top hats. And on the solo features as well as other kinds of pieces, besides getting more than one tempo going, he often starts several melodies rolling at once, sometimes in a carefully-controlled cacophonic chaos, sometimes in a simple setting of one theme atop another - and, to return to the space opera ideal, he's especially into the "twinkling stars" sort of backdrop, prominent in Halls of Brass, I Got It Bad and especially Edgon Heath, which plays with notions of fore­ground and background.

The features for instrumental stars, as written by both Russo and Holman (especially in the "St-St-Starry" master­pieces Stella by Starlight and Stairway to the Stars) come out of the Kenton vocabulary as recently defined by Rugolo, Shorty Rogers and the leader. 'They were slow and kind of fast in the middle," said Holman, "going back to the things Shorty had done like Art Pepper and Maynard Ferguson, you can use a beautiful song, and let the guy get hot in the middle and finish up the same way." Their slow-fast-slow set-up grows out of Jimmy Dorsey's earlier and more light-hearted three-tempo pop pieces like Tangerine, and, more directly, Dizzy Gillespie's multi-tempo Lover Come Back to Me.

"Stan was right about one thing," Holman added. "On ballads, it was better to feature a solo horn rather than trying to make the whole band sound warm on a ballad melody. It's much better to let a soloist do it because he can put so much more into it than a section playing a written out thing. So, we extended that to some of the hot pieces too, just to give a focus for the chart, to build it around one guy." Whether Russo's solo-spotlight features modulate from dirge to flagwaver or just from slow to stately, in a way that must have really turned Kenton on, they tend to get serious just at the point when another arranger would get sentimental.

Many of the Russo-Kenton concerti affect their speed changes dramatically, sometimes using an a capella pause as the point of tempo modulation, which becomes even more appropriate in the Latinate pieces, as the Latin-jazz orchestra enjoys a healthy tradition of pausing (or in the annals of Perez Prado, pausing and then grunting, though the Kenton-Russo trombones grunt with far greater grating grunginess than even the most road weary of human voices). 23 Degrees North82 Degrees West, that cacophonies cackling of the coordinates of Cuba for lascivious lovers of Latin latitudes, represents Russo's masterpiece of poly-everything, being polyrhythmic and poly­phonic;, contrasting different time signatures, different sections, different melodies on top of each, both at once and after more of those band-stopping rests.

Writing in Time Magazine in July, 1953, Kenton com­mented … 'The orchestra as it stands today is the greatest we've had in the twelve years of its existence. With the addition of men like Lee Konitz, Bill Holman, Frank Rosolino and Stan Levey, the band seems to have more drive than ever before - plus the fact that it's 'swinging.' (…) Even Whitney Balliett, the most articulate of anti-Kentonites, conceded in 1953 that the orchestra, ‘reveal(s) a much clearer jazz feeling than ever before.’

The new band used many of Kenton's '40s arrangers at first, including Johnny Richards, Shorty Rogers, Bob Graettinger and the leader, but as it got deeper into its own touring schedule, Kenton, ever anxious to break new ground, relied more and more on Russo. By this time, the aforemen­tioned established arrangers mainly wrote for Kenton as for a certain, very specialized kind of art kick while workaday studio gigs paid their Bel Air mortgages, but Russo, who remained in the trombone section, grew closer to both the man and the band as his own talents blossomed, and became the first to develop a new, post-Innovations style for the Kenton Orchestra.

In fact, both Russo's "low" and "high" brow pieces brought Kenton closer to what he had striven for with Innovations than he was ever able to do with the really big band. Johnny Richards may have landed the plum chore of explaining to the fans that this new group was in the best Kenton tradition in his Prologue [This is an Orchestra], a latter day equivalent of Benny Goodman's Ooh,Boom wherein B.G. showed he still had a great band (including Lester Young) despite the recent departure of Gene Krupa. But Russo dominated this particular Kenton era, writing virtually all four of Kenton's first original LPs, which included two collections of standards and the first Kenton collection to spotlight a name other than his own – The Music of Bill Russo. Russo also wrote almost all of the album which titled this entire period of the band's development, New Concepts, with the following phrase in much smaller letters near the bottom of the front cover, ‘Of Artistry In Rhythm.’

In his highly-concentrated Kenton career, Russo delved so deep into the essence of Kentonia that he was bound to dig clear through to China. To explain, let's go three degrees backwards and two degrees to the left: Kenton maintained his uniqueness by never going 100% into the mode of any era; only Woody Herman trusted his audiences enough to com­pletely go native with every worthwhile new trend. Whether Kenton played bop or semi-classical pieces they always sounded like Kenton first and whatever other style they happened to be in second.

And that includes the "cool" movement, of which, quite literally, every major writer and player had been part of the Orchestra at some time (and, as Russo pointed out, "'colo­nized' Los Angeles because that was Stan's home base when they worked for him"). They had comparatively little effect on the Kenton sound, mainly because he filtered those cool and contrapuntal ideas through his intrinsic heaviness. Even Shorty 'Twinkletoes" Rogers - with Gerry Mulligan the major "cool" arranger - sounds comparatively heavy in his Kenton pieces. Only Russo, in pieces like Fascinatin’ Rhythm, gives the weighty Kenton aggregation the true bottomless bounce of "cool" at its best, without removing any of the elements that let you know in two shakes of a monkey's tail exactly whose band you're listening to. Said Russo, "a Kenton band is almost instinctively recognizable because of its distinctive sound, personality and flair for the unusual."

On some of his settings of standard ballads as well, Russo finds in the Kenton sound something no other arranger had ever been able to bring out: lightness and elegance - a discovery as potent as Bill Holman's demonstration that the Kenton sound, in and of itself, could swing. Gerry Mulligan, briefly a Kenton arranger but for a long time one of his most astute commentators, has often expressed his preference for Claude Thornhill's great band (especially in the years after the war and before the second ban, when Gil Evans wrote the bulk of its arrangements), explaining that Thornhill's impres­sionistic tone-poem-like tableaux contained more beauty than Kenton's muscle-heavy machinations.

However, Russo, in these 1953 homages to the greater glories of Tin Pan Alley, brings a Thornhillian gentleness (most directly on There’s a Small Hotel) to the Kenton pallette, again, without taking away anything from what the boss expected. This Sophisticated Lady, for instance, even betrays lipstick traces of authentic femininity - the trumpet is muted rather than blaring through your brains - even if said lady does insist on running her jungle-red fingernails across the chalkboard of your heart, whereas You and the Night and the Music deftly shows that Astaire might have made a better dancing partner for this band than Tex Ritter. April in Paris, in Kenton style, threatens to become "December in Dresden," but its comparative featheriness and muted trumpet part point to the slightly later hit Basic version. How High the Moon retreats to its pre-jazz ballad tempo, with the characteristic blasting very nearly shooting higher than said satellite.

Having finished the two ten-inch albums of his re-thinkings of standards, Russo's final four "mood" pieces for Kenton, A Theme of Four Values, Dusk, Edgon Heath and Thisbe, show that the composer had completed a remarkable evolution since his initial works for the Innovations band only four years earlier. These are the kind of pieces that must have thoroughly thrilled and frustrated Kenton at the same time. Just as Kenton felt that Pete Rugolo captured what he wanted in 1945 better than he could, in 1954 Bill Russo is using every element of the Kenton sound - the Chopinesque piano, the brass demolition crew, the wild fluctuations in volume and dynamics - in a way that Kenton never really trusted himself to.

Russo creates truly serious and very heavy compositions that are not at all pretentious (because it achieves everything it sets out to do). Contrastingly, Kenton, especially after the commercial success of peanut vendor and the creep, only trusted his own abilities in terms of jukebox-oriented singles. In sponsoring and then conducting the more "serious" works of Graettinger and Russo (and, to another extent, the full swing pieces of Holman) Kenton must have been getting his thrills vicariously.

The key was to explore elements in keeping with the Kenton character yet which previous arrangers had not yet fully exploited. Ultimately, Russo prefers to polythematically play two riffs against each other at once, while Bill Holman would rather take one irresistible riff and bounce it along until it gradually leads into solos and subsequent phrases; the various melodies generally come one at a time, not simultaneously.”

To be continued in … New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm – Part 1