Monday, November 13, 2017

Mellophonium Memoirs - The Stan Kenton Orchestra

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


“Stan really wasn’t concerned about swinging at all. He wanted to hear colors in sound. Lots of colors and dynamics; anything associated with an orchestra, not a band. He got what he wanted because that’s what it always sounded like.”
- Dick “Slyde” Hyde, trombonist

Howard Lucraft: “Stan asked me to write some original compositions for the mellophonium band. In 1961, I scored a half-dozen things for their Las Vegas opening. They rehearsed them, Stan loved five out of the six, and threw out only one. Golden Earrings was one of the arrangements. Another was called Alta Drive, named after the street Stan lived on in Beverly Hills. It was a feature for saxophonist Sam Donahue. With his harmonics on the horn, Sam could play higher than even the trumpets. I was very pleased when Stan introduced me from the audience at the Riviera Lounge where they opened in Las Vegas

One thing should be said the about the actual instrument, the mellophonium. A complaint from everyone involved has always been that they were never in tune. I don't think it was a flaw of the instrument itself. Stan and Johnny Richards, who wrote a majority of those arrangements, would always write for the horns very high, which I disagreed with. They'd be in the French horn register, in high, unison lines. That's where part of the problem lay. I wrote for the instrument in the middle register, whether alone or in harmony. They didn't take this into consideration. That's just my opinion, but that's why I think the mellophoniums were out of tune.” - Quotation in Steven Harris, The Kenton Kronicles


In their ever-continuing effort to honor the memory of Stan Kenton and his recorded music, Bill Lichtenauer, the owner operator of Tantara Productions recently released Mellophonium Memoirs - Stan Kenton Orchestra [TCD-1133/October 2017].

The CD is comprised of 19 tracks derived from performances at five venues over a period of two years beginning in June, 1961 and continuing through to June, 1963.

As is denoted in the CD title, the focus of these cuts is on music by the Kenton band that incorporated another layer of brass instruments - the mellophonium; a continuation of Kenton’s constant quest for neophonics - new sounds.

By way of background, Stan explained in a CBS radio interview: "At the beginning of the 1960, I became very restless with the sound that the band was getting. Johnny Richards and I both agreed it was time to work over the instrumentation of the band. We felt the development of new instruments and new tonal colors was long overdue."

Stan’s first thoughts were to expand the saxophone section, deleting the alto altogether, and have Gabe Baltazar on soprano lead. Stan experimented with a section of up to ten players, but unsurprisingly this proved unsuccessful.

So Stan then gave Gene Roland carte blanche to find a new brass instrument to add to the orchestra, and Gene put together a team of four E-flat (alto) trumpets, an idea that was also nixed, because according to Stan, "It was impossible to distinguish any difference between them and the conventional B-flat trumpet section. We then tried the miraphone —  something in the order of a German cornet — but we quickly abandoned that because of the muddled sound it produced. And after experimenting for two days with flugel horns, we were ready to give it up completely."

Finally, the Conn instrument manufacturers at Elkhart, Indiana, learned that Stan was interested in locating a new brass instrument, and came up with a possible solution. Since the mid-Fifties, initially at mellophone player Don Elliott's request, they had been working on a new version of the mellophone, which had the bell facing forward, rather than the traditional backward direction.

Conn's rather radical invention featured trumpet-style valves, but with the circular tubing of the mellophone and a forward-facing French horn bell, and thus had something in common with all three instruments. Pitched in the key of E-flat, the Conn people called their hybrid the mellophonium.

In consultation with Johnny Richards, Stan convinced Conn that if he was to feature their new instrument, they had to change the tuning slide to play in the key of F, which delivered a more distinctive sound. It also rendered the instrument almost impossible to play in tune, but Kenton was insistent, and conscious of the invaluable publicity Stan's use would bring their horn, with some misgivings Conn made the necessary alterations. Other than that adaptation, stories that abound to this day that Stan "invented" the mellophonium himself are totally untrue.

As Kenton himself said, "We had them send some instruments to us, and Johnny Richards and I became terribly excited with the sound of the mellophonium. It had an identity of its own, it was something that bridged the gap between the trumpets and the trombones, and we started to look for players.”

The following insert notes by Kenton authority Michael Spake provide more detail on the unique quality of the Mellophonium Memoirs - Stan Kenton Orchestra [TCD-1133] recordings.

Michael Sparke is the author of Stan Kenton, This Is An Orchestra, a Stan Kenton biography, which is available from Tantara Productions, select bookshops and internet suppliers, and directly from its publisher, The University of North Texas Press.


© -Michael Sparke/Tantara Productions, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Never have the opinions of the fans differed more from those of the musicians, than in the case of the Mellophonium Orchestra. Audiences loved the new instruments. The musicians almost to a man hated them - even those called upon to play the strange-looking contraptions with the big bells. Bob Fitzpatrick's memorable quote has become part of Kenton folklore: "They sound like a bunch of stampeding, pregnant elephants!" Even Bob Curnow would say: "I know we were happiest when our [trombone] section was seated as far away from the mellophoniums as possible."

The reason was that the mellophoniums consistently played out of tune, and the cause of that was Stan Kenton. Manufacturers Conn had produced their new instrument in the key of E-flat, but to obtain the distinctive sound and the volume he required, Stan insisted this be changed to the key of F. Conn were hesitant, but the publicity to be gained from the Kenton orchestra featuring their hybrid instrument was too great to be ignored, and they reluctantly complied. Kenton reasoned correctly that so long as the four mellophoniums were in tune with each other, audiences would not notice any faults. But the musicians were acutely aware, and voiced their displeasure at every opportunity. As Gabe Baltazar explained, "When you're playing within the band, you hear things differently from what the audience hears."

Unhappiest of all were the trumpet players. Long regarded as 'top dogs' in a jazz orchestra, they were the loudest section, the most exciting, the icing on the cake. Now they had to suffer the nightly humiliation of being effortlessly topped by the mellophoniums, as their unique sound rose above the combined ensemble to highlight each thrilling orchestral climax. Conversely, the boss was ecstatic. Stan liked BIG, and the new instruments not only added a bright, new sound to the music, they looked impressive on the stand. As far as Kenton was concerned, the meltophoniums were here to stay.

Mainstays in the section which played the Moonlight Gardens [Coney Island Park, Cincinnati, Ohio] in June 1961 were ex-French horn player Dwight Carver on lead, and "Street Scene" soloist Gene Roland. Along with composer Johnny Richards, Roland had been in on the project from the very beginning, and was renowned for his ability to play most any instrument you cared to name. "Basically, Gene played in a blues style," reflected Gabe Baltazar. "He was not a fast, technical player, but he used a lot of blue notes, and he flowed easily, not like a bebop player. He was like a Lester Young of the mellophonium."

Dances remained a vital part of the itinerary in 1961, and Stan wrote the first set of ballads himself, emphasizing the mellophonium section sound. "I loved playing Stan's charts like 'All The Things You Are'," said Ray Florian. "They were so beautiful and full of emotion, they brought tears to your eyes while you were playing them." But overall, the musicians preferred the lighter, looser dance arrangements of Lennie Niehaus, who wrote extensively for the new band. "I really loved Niehaus' writing on tunes like 'It Might As Well Be Spring'," said Carl Saunders. "It was so melodic, and Lennie blended the mellophoniums with the other sections so well, that we sounded kinda nice at times."

Johnny Richards may have been a less prolific writer than Niehaus, but John brought something special to every chart he arranged, and the score from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" was one of his greatest achievements. Of the ten orchestrations, Stan's preferred choice was probably "Maria", though as here, he sometimes omitted his piano part altogether, perhaps choosing to sit back and simply revel in Johnny's mellophonium-driven orchestration.

But two of this band's finest achievements came not from the regular arrangers, but from independent writers, Marty Paich and Bill Holman. Many may agree that this is a definitive recording of "My Old Flame". The high-note shrieks of Sam Donahue's often over-the-top tenor add great excitement, in contrast to the under-stated trumpet lamentations of Marvin Stamm. The chart's symphonic structure combines with the band's fiery performance to create a work unique to the Kenton orchestra.

But if ever a chart caught Stan's attention, it was Bill Holman's "Malaguena". "One of the best arrangements ever written," opined Carl Saunders. Complete with all the passion, drama, and grandeur that Kenton most admired, the piece was featured at concerts until the end. Holman recalled that, "Stan asked me to write 'Malaguena'. He had the mellophoniums, so that added a theatrical layer, and the tune itself is kind of theatrical, so I took my cue from that, and said, 'Well, this can't be a swing chart, this is something different.' And I was newly in love, and I just poured all my emotions into it"


There was general agreement that the mellophoniums operated best in unison, rather than as a solo instrument. That is, until Ray Starling came along. Born in England in 1933, Ray had moved with his family to America when he was 16, and uniquely regarded the mellophonium as his primary instrument. Kenton appointed him lead player during band rehearsals in March 1962, and moved Dwight Carter to a different chair in the section.


"Ray Starling really felt the mellophonium was his voice," said Joel Kaye. "He was just so bold, so authoritative. Ray loved the mellophonium, and he played it like he loved it, you could tell. Ray's technique far outstripped Gene Roland's, and he had such a catalog of ideas that he could execute, any time. Ray was very conscious of the intonation, and he had the discipline and comfort level on the instrument where he could really do things. His solos were truly outstanding, and he was a real spirit."

The band was roaring at Michigan State University in August 1962, and the solos bring a fresh force into two favorite compositions. On "Blues Story" Bob Fitzpatrick tries to show that anything a mellophonium can do, a trombone can attempt as well, but it's the down-home, bluesy tenor sax of Charlie Mariano that impresses. Charlie doesn't really have a tenor player's tone, he was more at home on alto, but his solo brims over with passion and 'soul. Starling follows, his control enabling him to bring forth startling sounds that no other mellophonium player would even attempt.

Marvin Stamm is exceptional on "Waltz Of The Prophets", his playing an extension of the jerky tones of the theme, a succession of jumpy notes that nevertheless flow into a compelling stream of sound. Starling opens low-key, but soon develops into an exciting unpredictability that fully justifies Carl Saunders’ opinion that "Ray Starting was full of music. He could emphasize the lyrical side of the mellophonium, or he could solo with fire and intensity. He filled up his horn with music, and I thought he was great." Kenton agreed, telling me: "Ray Starling is a very talented writer, a great mellophonium player, and a monster pianist. Ray walks around on top all the time  -he's wild!" The special bonus track "What Is Love ?", probably recorded circa 1964 in New York, has no Kenton connection, but provides proof of Ray's piano skills, and a talent Stan neglected to mention: the ability to carry a tune vocally. Like a lot of gifted jazz players, Starling had a pleasing voice, and knew about pitch, and remaining in tune. A truly multi-talented musician!

The 1963 titles come from Brant Inn, Canada, and include songs by Stan's last full-time vocalist. The guys in the band adored Jean Turner. Intelligent, soft-spoken and charming, off-stage Jean was somewhat shy, causing the men to feel fiercely protective towards their star singer, especially as she had to endure all the slings and arrows directed towards black artists in 1960s America.

On-stage was another matter, and Jean sang with an authoritative ease and style which attracted both audiences and band-members alike. After two years with Kenton, Jean sang briefly with Harry James, but instead of pursuing a solo career, turned her back on show business in favor of a private, family life (in Denmark for a few years and now on the West Coast). We are the losers, because as John Worster said: "Jean was so special! It was just unfortunate that Nancy Wilson, also a Capitol Records artist, hit it big just the year before, because to me Jean was very similar - only BETTER!"

Brant Inn's bluesy TUXEDO JUNCTION is not the more familiar Gene Roland orchestration, but was written instead by Lennie Niehaus. Joel Kaye confirmed he has a copy of the chart with Lennie's signature at the top, adding : "It was written after the Tropicana date, but before Stan formed the mellophonium band." Most pre-1961 titles were not rescored to feature the new horns, though some, like PEANUT VENDOR, would include a mellophonium solo. Lennie is also the writer of 1961's upbeat BEGIN THE BEGUINE. "I didn't want to be the mellophonium soloist," Tony Scodwell reflected, "but there was truly no-one else. I managed to put some licks together that came out pretty nice, but I was never at ease playing the jazz chair." The Brant Inn date holds many treasures, not least Jiggs Whigham's jaunty solo on ARTISTRY IN BOSSA NOVA, a fitting conclusion to over an hour of mellophonium magic.

During the Seventies, Stan often said how much he'd like to bring the mellophoniums back, knowing full well he lacked both the finances to pay four extra salaries, and the energy to supervise their integration. Instead , we have the recorded legacy of those three magnificent years from the Sixties, when Stan accepted all the challenges thrown up by the mellophonium orchestra, and won. In the words of Dwight Carver, "It was really another of those innovational experiments that only Stan Kenton would have the balls to do."”

— Michael Sparke, London, October 2017

The following audio-only Soundcloud track features the Mellophonium Band’s exciting version of Bill Holman’s arrangement of Malaguena.

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