© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
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
As I mentioned in Part 1 of the profile on the New Concepts Kenton orchestras, this is “where I came in,” so to speak; this was my in-depth involvement with Stan Kenton’s music.
Thanks to Kenton’s willingness to allow lead trumpeter Al Porcino and drummer Mel Lewis to set the direction of the band during the mid-1950’s, and because of a host of arrangements by the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Marty Paich and Lennie Niehaus, the Kenton band that I first heard of the Contemporary Concepts  and Back to Balboa  LPs was a swinging aggregation.
Michael Sparke, in his marvelous Stan Kenton: This is an Orchestra!, explains the origins of this version the Kenton Orchestra:
“... the real catalyst who changed the band's music forever was Gerry Mulligan. … Limelight, Swing House, Walking Shoes, and Young Blood may not have been archetypal Kenton, but from a jazz point of view Mulligan's charts were without peer. …
"Mulligan's charts were a lot of fun to play," commented Lennie Niehaus, "because we had a lot more freedom to do what we wanted. By thinning out the lines and making them less cluttered, Gerry softened the sound of the band. It was like Bach, contrapuntal, and the moving parts would weave in and out of each other, so that lightened up the sound, and helped the band to swing in a different manner. We have Gerry Mulligan to thank for that. He led the way for Holman and myself, and maybe a few other arrangers. The guys in the band thought it was great, but Stan needed a lot of convincing."…
Immediate beneficiary of the Mulligan influence was Bill Holman. "My first arrangements the band played were Deep Purple and Star Eyes both for the dance library. But I loved Gerry Mulligan's charts so much, the next thing I wrote sounded just like what Gerry had been writing, so Stan never used that one at all. But I was playing all of Gerry's arrangements—or at least, the ones Stan was using. So I really got to pay attention to what made up a great writer's charts.
"But Mulligan was not interested in becoming a Kenton arranger. He just wrote his kind of music for Stan, and there was no compromising. In my case, I wanted to write for Stan Kenton, so I spent many months just trying to figure out how I was going to do it. And when I did start writing for the band, it was not quite like Gerry, but there was a whole lot of influence there. Stan made it plain from the start he didn't want any Count Basie-type swing charts, and I knew I didn't want to write Progressive Jazz, so I had to find some kind of middle way that would keep us both happy; and eventually I did. And it was heavier, more massive than the things that Gerry wrote, but that's because of who I was working for."
According to Noel Wedder, "Holman and Stan carried on a 'love-hate' relationship for years. Of all his arrangers, Stan was closest to Bill, which didn't stop them from quarrelling. Their arguments over scores were legendary. But Stan saw Holman as the son he'd always wanted. Charming. Self-effacing. Determined. Stubborn. A take-no-prisoners attitude. But above all, extremely talented." With the last comment at least, the musicians agreed to a man.
"When it comes to writing," said Bill Trujillo, "Holman's got a way of simplifying things. He'll write one unison line, and a counterpoint. When you play Bill's charts you feel happy. They just hit you right. They swing. The way he does things is different from any other arranger, like a big band playing as a small group.”
Opined Bill Perkins: "I would say Bill Holman's music was the best-liked by the band. The secret? Taste and voice-leading. Bill Holman wrote the book on voice-leading for big bands.” And Phil Gilbert: ''I think Bill Holman is the greatest composer/ arranger alive or dead, just listen to the prolific body of work he has done. He has written masterpieces for his own band, countless singers, and the likes of Terry Gibbs and Stan Kenton. It is a thrill to play his music. If you ask anyone, in any section of the orchestra, how they like their part, the answer is 'Perfect!' No boring parts, ever!" [pp. 97-98]
For more on what makes the Bill Holman “sound” so distinctive in the Kenton Orchestra, here are Will Friedwald views from the insert notes that he prepared for the Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman and Russo Charts [Mosaic MD4-136].
Mosaic Records and Will Friedwald. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Holman's earliest pieces, most famously invention for GUITAR
AND TRUMPET, use the baroque, counterpoint-heavy style then in vogue as a result of the popularity of the various BIRTH of the cool and Kenton arrangers (not to mention Tristano). "I realize now that counterpoint was my whole shtick then," says Holman, "that was the whole west coast jazz thing. People would say 'we got a record date - let's call an arranger and have him write some contrapuntal charts.' That was a weird period, with everybody writing these Bach-kind of fugues, full of eighth notes flying all over the place. If something sells a couple dozen more, the record guys will think that's gotta be the answer."
Bill Holman's work shows that he quickly established that his forte was in bringing out the simpler, more strictly swinging essence of Kentonian cool. Even by the time of theme
and variations, despite the title, Holman had become more frugal than fugal, he had honed his style down to a point where it wasn't a million themes and variations happening all at once (which only Russo could bring about coherently) but in succession - easy to follow yet which never talk down to the listener. Holman's charts provide the perfect get off points for both dancers and soloists, while at the same time remain true to the essence of what Kenton wanted to do with his band.
The band remained stable after Russo, in turn, left the trombone section to write for it full time, despite occasional periods of down-time generally at the ends of years and fall tours, as in both the late autumn of '53 and '54. When Kenton re-grouped in January '55, however, the new orchestra was different enough from what had come before to suggest yet another new - or rather semi-new - era. The '52 - '54 music, dominated by Russo, became known by the
new concepts album; the '55 - '56 Kenton sound, guided largely by Holman, was best represented by an album sought after even by those who wouldn't normally take Kenton records as a gift -contemporary concepts. In retrospect, these two pinnacles of the band's existence are best thought of as the Concepts I and Concepts II bands.
Importantly, Holman's Kenton experience coincided with that of the jazz giant soon to become one of Holman's biggest boosters and Kenton's sharpest critics, Gerry Mulligan. "I don't think Gerry was ever too happy about the way in which we performed his music," said Kenton. YOUNGBLOOD from
NEW CONCEPTS, LIMELIGHT from CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTS, SWING HOUSE from THE KENTON ERA and Geru's big band adaptation of his small group marvel WALKIN’ SHOES, being their most famous joint efforts.
"Mulligan is quite an individualist and I guess I am also, and as much respect as we have for each other, if I had let the orchestra play Mulligan's music just exactly the way he wanted it played, it wouldn't have had a Kenton sound to it at all," Kenton continued, "Gerry isn't as bitter about it as he was at one time, but there was a time when he, Gerry, declared I never would perform his music any way that he wanted it performed. You know, even his big band sounded like a small group, they played like a small group; whereas I think that a big band should sound like a big band, and it should have strength as well as the soft things. So, the relationship between Gerry and I was never really too happy. Today I think we're over that and Gerry and I are quite good friends." Said Lee Konitz, "I was surprised that Gerry and Stan even ever started working together, not that they didn't continue for very long."
Holman probably benefited more from this aborted relationship - which was supposed to begin with a full ten charts - than either Mulligan or Kenton. "I got a big boost from Gerry Mulligan," he said. "Stan didn't really like (his charts), but he played 'em. Playing those things in the band was a real eye-opener, because Gerry was working on the same thing that I was - the contrapuntal lines and not so much of the concerted ensemble, breaking the band down into smaller groups and unison lines and things like that. Playing those charts of Gerry's was heaven, and it gave me a good start on things that I wanted to do with the band." Holman perhaps gained from the experience by negative example; Kenton played Mulligan's music to a certain degree because the critics and public had already substantiated their validity. For Holman to do what he wanted with Kenton's orchestra, he had to respect the leader's wishes a little more - as the four R's of Kenton arranging, Rugolo, Roland, Richards and Russo, had - and come up with a happy compromise that would reflect the best tastes of both men.
"I really got started writing for Kenton at the end of '52, the guys in the band had shown a lot of enthusiasm for my stuff, and that helped Stan make his peace with it - here was something different," Holman said, "So he kept encouraging me and I kept writing, all through the summer and fall of '53 when we went to Europe (followed by a stay at Bird land and the start of the 1953-early '54 "Festival of Modern American Jazz" package tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner)." However, Kenton and Holman "had kind of a disagreement" and Holman did not return after the Christmas '53 layoff.
'Then, a few months later they were out on the coast, but I heard they were recording all these things I had done [including the miraculous Konitz-Holman session, which Holman does not remember attending]. And I really thought that was extraordinary because I thought after I had left the band that would be it. I went down to the recording. I was pleased that Stan didn't harbor a grudge after all the horrible things 1 had said to him!" When Kenton did his second "festival" tour, he re-recruited Holman. "He got the band together in late summer of'54 and I went on that trip. In the middle of that trip he sent me to
to work on a couple of things, including STELLA BY STARLIGHT and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. So by that time our animosities had cooled out." New York
Holman's earlier works for Kenton continue the contrapuntal concept, and also extend the idea of featuring instruments not accustomed to taking a starring role in the jazz and big band sphere (the unrecorded FRIVOLOUS
SAL uses the guitar considerably more adventurously than the original INVENTION FOR GUITAR TRUMPET, where Salvador primarily plays a written fugal line). bags, a feature for bass that harkens back to the Ellington-Blanton band masterpieces and Kenton's own contemporaneous CONCERTO FOR DOGHOUSE with Howard Rumsey, but, expanding on Dizzy Gillespie's ONE... and TWO... BASS HIT(s), features the bassist throughout and not just in the head statements.
After the epochful fall '53 European tour, a landmark event for American music as much for Kenton himself, and then the no-less-earth-shattering 1953 "Festival" tour which, instead of the usual star vocalists offered in these package shows (Nat Cole and Sarah Vaughan had topped the bill in the previous year's edition), teamed the Kenton band with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Holman and Konitz had both left the band. Therefore, when an all-Holman-Konitz-Kenton date went down on March 1, 1954, no one was more surprised than Holman, who learned about it long after the fact (he still doesn't remember ever writing this chart on LOVERMAN), and Konitz, and possibly, Kenton.
Listening to the four tracks from that session on this set, they fit so perfectly well together like four mini-masterpieces (they could almost be an Ellington suite for bebop alto) that it's tough to believe they were both conceived and originally released much more haphazardly. The two standards, LOVERMAN and MY FUNNY VALENTINE had originally been loosely sketched out by Holman for Charlie Parker to play (explaining why two "Lovermen" exist in the Kenton library as Konitz features) in front of the Kenton band in that fall '53 tour (Dizzy Gillespie having used his own orchestral charts; Bird also played his recorded arrangement of night
AND DAY by Joe Lippman with Kenton on that tour). According to Konitz, Kenton had originally planned to record these charts with Bird, but, knowing Norman Granz's disdain for letting his contract artists appear on other labels and for big band music in general, Parker could not appear; they were unofficially but fortunately recorded in live performances, and have since been issued on private Kenton collector's labels (a third, CHEROKEE, was recorded in '55 with altoist Charlie Mariano in the Bird's nest).
'The only reason (for that date) was that they planned on doing it with Bird," Konitz recalled. "Stan called me one day (several months after leaving the band) and asked me to come on as a soloist. I said 'Gee, I'd be delighted,' and asked who else would be on the date. He said, 'Charlie Parker,' and I said, 'What?' I couldn't believe it!" Said Konitz, 'There was a bit of a story during the tour with Bird and Diz, that Dizzy was nudging Bird because I was supposedly mopping the floor with him. I met Max Roach one day on Central Park West and alluded to that and he said that it was a fact: The word is out that you're cutting Bird.' I mean, God damn! The reason, of course, was that I was in a familiar environment, I had been in that band for 15 months or so, and Bird had just stepped in and wasn't that comfortable, obviously. Plus, he was juicing. But then, I remember Dizzy telling me later, after he told Bird, This young ofay is cutting you, you better get with it.' Then Dizzy, said, 'I'm sorry I said anything because the next night / was the one who had to follow Bird!'"
Along with the two Parker features, Kenton also seized the opportunity to commit to tape two Holman masterworks written directly for Konitz, a standard variant, of
all things (as the title implies, based on all the things you ark) and an original variously titled in lighter vein or dn a lighter vein. Thus, for possibly the only time in the four-decade Kenton chronicle, an entire date went to a single arranger and a single soloist, anticipating even Ellington's featuring Paul Gonsalves session of 1962. The Ellington-Gonsalves album/session befell a similar fate in that no trace of it saw the light until the late '80s, while the Konitz/Holman session has only been heard scattershot on a variety of Capitol (American and English) and Creative World singles, EPs & LPs, with no two of the tracks ever being on the same release - perhaps it just sounded too vehemently unKentonian while he was alive -until now.
Despite Kenton's passion for blaring brass and drummers that aspired to cauldrons as much as kettles, and despite Konitz's contention that, "Playing a saxophone in a big brass band is not enviable, you're almost just padding for the trumpets (In my next lifetime I'll be a drummer)!", the alto saxes were always the soloists to pay attention to in the Kenton band. And that goes from the beginning, when Art Pepper and George Wiedler made a hot and sweet counterpart to Basic's tough-and-tender tenor team of Hershal Evans and Lester Young, through Bud Shank, Charlie Mariano, Gabe Baltazar (who owed as much to earlier swing altos like Willie Smith as to Bird), Herb Geller, Harry Klee, Dick Meldonian, Lennie Niehaus, noted ornithologist
Davey Schildkraut, Boots Mussulli, Herbie Steward, Ronnie Lang.
But, without fear of contradiction, the greatest alto saxist and therefore the greatest soloist in the band's history was Lee Konitz. To justify his edge over Pepper, let me cop out of an apples-vs-oranges decision by explaining that Pepper was younger and years away from his peak in his Kenton years, where Konitz had already spent years with other bands large (Thornhill) and small (Miles Davis), not to mention industrial strength woodshedding with Lennie Tristano. 'The Tristano guys put me down for going with Kenton," Konitz said, "but they were the first to copy my solos." From the outset, Konitz wails sensationally enough to more than justify this extravagant claim - he's not only all over his horn, he's all over the band and all over the arrangement, a ceaseless dynamo of great ideas conceived and expressed brilliantly.
But Holman charges that as late as that session (even on the next day's recorded offerings, which included no less than five more Holman classics), "the band didn't really have a very solid swing concept, because Stan was always yelling for straight eighths and I was always writing swing time. Poor Buddy (Childers, Kenton's lead trumpeter for many years), who was responsible for the phrasing, tried to satisfy us both with a middle ground, it just came out sounding weird." Mel Lewis concurred, "I don't think (drummer) Stan Levey enjoyed playing with Buddy, or Childers with Levey. And then Kenton's concept of straight eighths is a little difficult for a drummer, especially a bebop drummer. You've got to change it and you've got to be tricky."
When Kenton again re-organized after the Christmas '54 lay-off, the band that took to the road in January '55 was the remarkable "Concepts II" edition. In 1937 Kenton had experience with straight-ahead swing, playing in hotel bandleader Gus Arnheim's refurbished group. Earlier editions of the Kenton orchestra itself, before Kenton and Rugolo developed the original concept of Artistry in Rhythm, also sounded more like your average white swing band.
But while some are born swinging and some achieve swing, Kenton had swing thrust upon him. Never before or after the Concepts bands - II even more than I - would Kenton swing so willingly, so deliberately and with so much of his heart. To reverse that idea, the Kenton orchestras always had swing in their hearts, meaning that the soloists could and did. But what distinguishes an orchestra with swinging soloists from a truly swinging orchestra is how it handles its solo players, whether it encourages or impedes them, and what it puts around them. In pondering the Shakespearian question, to swing or not to swing, the responsibility falls on two key men, the lead trumpeter has to pull the band exactly the right way from the front, and the drummer has to push the band just so from behind.
But, with Concepts II, Kenton not only put the right men in those crucial chairs, he encouraged them to do as they pleased. "I was sure this was to be Stan's best band ever, and, in fact, one of the greatest bands ever, since Bill Holman had written a whole new and wonderful book," wrote Al Porcino, "With sidemen like Mariano, Perkins, Niehaus, Fontana, Noto, Max Bennett and Mel, it was certainly one of my most enjoyable times working for Stan." Said Holman, "In '55, Stan had given Porcino carte blanche, and they also had Mel Lewis. So, they had the conception down, and I was so knocked out, because it was the first chance I had to really hear the charts played like a jazz band!"
Perhaps what makes them work is that they're not just like a jazz band but they still have enough of what makes us love the old Kenton carbohydrate sound; while any number of arrangers could write a great swinging chart, it was damn near impossible to make Kenton's concepts swing in and of themselves, as Holman did. STELLA BY STARLIGHT is perhaps the most glorious of all flights of soul by that young Bird of Boston, Charlie Mariano. It's one of those classic Kenton three-tempo jobs that Russo had already brought to perfection, and Holman's backing for the first chorus (which he discusses elsewhere) utilizes advance technical trickery worthy of the text books. But just when Holman, Mariano and Victor Young's melody have lulled you into romantic; reverie, out comes the mighty Melvin slapping you out of it in a vigorous trade of fours with master Mariano, as the ensemble launches into a series of typically brilliant Holman melodic variations (even when the written tune does sneak through, it's never one of the more easily identifiable passages).
The fast and slow parts, far from simply destroying the other's momentum, accentuate each other by virtue of their proximity. And Holman does no worse with mono-rhythmic pieces like YESTERDAYS, which spots Bill Perkins (one of the few players who made a reputation with the bands of both Kenton and Herman) in a dreamy yet intense Kern-el of Kentonia crammed with bittersweet reminiscence, and a forerunner of the long-awaited Holman-Art Pepper ballad epic WINTER MOON. On the way-up CHEROKEE, another ace altoist, Lennie Niehaus, gets an early chance to show off the admiration and understanding for Charlie Parker which would eventually land him the commission to score Clint Eastwood's mm) flick.
NEW, I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN and STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, which, along with Mulligan's LIMELIGHT rounded out the original twelve-inch contemporary concepts, represent the pinnacle of Holman's arch-melody works, wherein the arranger transforms both original melody and chords into a new tune with just enough of the original to hang on to, very much the way Lester Young or Stan Getz (especially in his essential old BLACK MAGIC variations) would "read" a melody in a first chorus.
SKIN sports six soloists (one inter-solo interlude dropping into a contrapuntal episode), none more keenly felt than Mel Ijewis, who uses the Kenton style as an excuse for reconciling bebop bomb-dropping with traditional big band push. what's
NEW disperses more round-harmony melodic fragments as it answers its own nominal question, with Perkins rambulating in the alto-tenor range, and the sections making the usual range rounds from outerspace to underground, dissolving in a Russian movie-type fade out, but still swinging! , with its ten-bar recomposition of the original eight, proffers a basic-line so irresistible that had it too been devised in 1934, just as many bands would have added it to their books. SAVOY
But this too shall pass. It was just too un-Kentonian to last. As Konitz observed regarding the Mulligan-Kenton relationship, the miracle is that it ever happened at all, no matter how brief. This was a man who couldn't bring himself to say the word "Zoot" on stage and insisted on referring to his 1953 tenor star as "Jack Sims" (leaving many fans, who had been following Zoot's rising star since Benny Goodman's 1943 band, to wonder who he might be talking about). A man who wouldn't play what might have been Holman's most danceable original, BOOP BOOP BE DOOP because the title was also beyond the realm of things he wanted to pronounce into a microphone going out to thousands of innovative conceptualist fans (Holman told Carol Easton "he wanted to call it 'Artistry in Cosmic Radiation' or something). On a recently-issued live version of hoop, Kenton disassociates himself from the title by clarifying, in his intro, that 'The orchestra has chosen this one." (Undoubtedly true. "Towards the end of any given night, Stan sometimes asked, 'what do you guys wanna play,"' remembered Sal Salvador, "And we'd always say, one of those Gerry Mulligan or Bill Holman charts.")
'The consensus was that the band was getting out of his control and going too far the sidemen's way, so he just decided to call it a halt and think about it," said Holman, adding, "He still had jazzy charts in the band after that, especially when Dee Barton was there." After Kenton's most visible summer ever - in which the band did a TV series, MUSIC '55, that did not make it beyond summer replacement status in the same season that Lawrence Welk became the hottest thing on the picture tube - Porcino said goodbye for the last time, in December. He sensed the handwriting before it had even gotten as far as the wall, and was "tired," he said, "and disappointed that Stan did not follow through with swing."
Mel Lewis stayed on through the February '56 HI-FI album, and long enough to enjoy working with Curtis Counce, and an April '56 European tour, but by that time it was no longer the same band. When Mariano split before the trip to become half of the frontline of Shelly Manne and his Men, Kenton, once again in the mood for instrumental experimentation as opposed to playing it straight-ahead, replaced him with two French horn players. However, still determined to forever thwart expectations, when the band returned, Kenton made one of his unflakiest and hardest-hitting of all records, CUBAN
FIRE, penned by longtime associate Johnny Richards and spotlighting one of the greatest tenor players ever featured in Kenton's or almost anyone else's band, Lucky Thompson (I wonder if he was tempted to add a shofar section - including tenor and bass shofars - and follow CUBAN FIRE with JEWISH LIGHTING).
And still, after carrying the French horns and a brass bass (tuba to you and me) for a season or so, Kenton was in the mood to swing again by '57 and for the rest of the decade, when he got around to recording a hitherto un-studio'ed Holman swinger ROYAL
BLUE. The '58 band, boasting the Mel Lewis-inspired Jerry MacKenzie on drums as well as old hands Lennie Niehaus and Richie Kamuca, shows here it need not never defer to the '55 band in the flagwaver department. But after this, the last Concepts item to make it into the studio, Kenton only contacted Holman for a few in-character indulgences: the mellophonium band and two undistinguished singers that he seemed determined to elevate to the status of O'Day, Christy and Connor, namely Ann Richards and Jean Turner.
Of the recorded instrumentals Holman provided for the 1961 band stairway to the stars comes off as a worthy sequel to STELLA BY STARLIGHT in its intense alto soulfully striding a rethought melody (opening a capella - or sans rhythm anyway), and several tempo changes, with the underdog Gabe Baltazar emerging a worthy heir to the mantle of Mariano and Konitz. MALAGUENA, a case study of mellophonium momentum and classic Kentonism, includes just about everything the leader dug, being Latin-American, semi-classical and encompassing swooping trombones, roaring altos, tons of tumultuous tempi and percussive effects that sound more like the neibelungen pounding out the rheingold than caballeros contemplating the quantity of coffee in Brazil. Further Holman appearances in the Creative World, with the Neophonic Orchestra (which also reunited Kenton with Bill Russo) and
, the much later follow-up to MALAGUENA, amount to mere postscripts to their relationship. MALAGA
Despite Holman and Russo's works for the band, which all belong clearly to the realm of successful art music that will last forever, no less now than when Kenton was alive does admitting to liking his music constitute a guilty pleasure. It's like being a vegetarian with a secret craving for fried chicken. Sure the stuff was pretentious, and even at its best had a starchy taste that you had to get used to. But was it worth it? I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind.
It was the best of bands, it was the worst of bands. It was the pure tommy-rot of pretension, it was the soul of soaring unselfconsciousness. It was the very stuff of swing, it was a egomaniac's demented dream of pompousness. It was as light as Basie and as heavy as Beethoven. It was indulgent and ecstatic, funereal and joyful. It was, in short, a band like no other.
This, God damn it, was an orchestra.
Thus spake Kenton.