© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Of the five genius big band composers and arrangers who emerged in full bloom in die 1950s — Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards — Richards is the forgotten one. When Richards is remembered, it is for his works for Stan Kenton and not for the recordings of his own bands. So it is hoped that the recordings at hand [Mosaic Select #17 - Johnny Richards] — the earliest of which were recorded 50 years ago — help to remedy this neglect. It is inconceivable that music so brilliant has been out of circulation for so long.”
- Todd Selbert, insert notes to Mosaic Select #17 - Johnny Richards
“From the first moment I played with Stan and what little I exchanged with him, I knew him as a true pioneer and champion of music making. The world knows of his innovations and popularity, but little of the man's true depth as a creator. In the development of art forms throughout history, there are various stages and periods of innovation. Kenton was a milestone. He can be counted as a pillar that helped support the arches of lesser lights.”
- George Gaber, timpanist [Dr. William Lee, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm, p. 219]
Unlike many big band leaders to whom arrangements were brought, played through with maybe some editing here and there and then assigned to the band’s book, Stan Kenton actually collaborated with the many arrangers who provided his band’s charts over the years.
Perhaps this is because, unlike many other big band leaders, he was his band’s first arranger. Stan was dissimilar to Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and a host of other outstanding leader-soloists, in that, while he was a capable instrumentalist as a pianist, Stan’s primary forte was always his skill as an arranger.
Not surprisingly, then, through its almost forty years of existence, the Kenton band was sometimes referred to through Stan’s interactive collaborations with Joe Coccia, Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Bob Graettinger, Johnny Richards, Lennie Niehaus, Bill Mathieu, Dee Barton, Hank Levy, and many others.
I am especially fond of the Kenton-Richards collaborations and Cuban Fire! has remained a particular favorite of mine since I first heard it a year or so after it was issued.
By way of background, in the chapter entitled Fuego Cubano (1956) from his definitive biography Stan Kenton This Is An Orchestra! [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2010], Michael Sparke writes:
“On March 4, 1956, the band with its full complement left New York aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth, bound for its second European tour. But this time the first destination was Britain, following successful negotiations with the Union for a reciprocal tour of America by Ted Heath and His Music. Kenton's debut concert on English soil was at 2 p.m. on March 11, in London's vast Royal Albert Hall, the atmosphere electric as the capacity crowd greeted Stan's first-ever appearance leading his orchestra before a British audience in their homeland.
The English jazz "establishment" was uniformly anti-Kenton, and everything he stood for, but individual writers and musicians could not disguise their excitement and admiration for the powerful precision and outstanding musicianship of this fine orchestra and its distinguished soloists.
The program consisted of a mixture of older "classics" and the more recent Holman charts, including a brand new "Royal Blue" named especially for the UK tour, and one very fresh composition by Johnny Richards which really set the audience roaring (and 1 was one of them!) called "El Congo Valiente." Of the soloists, highest praise went to Perkins, Niehaus, and Fontana.
Kent Larsen sums up Stan's second European tour with a spirited reminiscence: "England was cold and rainy, we did 60 concerts in 33 days, we ate ham sandwiches until they came out of our ears, and we had a complete ball: the audiences were super! The Continent was just as hectic as regard to schedules, but it was a joy meeting and playing with so many wonderful musicians. The five days each way on the Queen Elizabeth were a thrill, just like a paid vacation. By the time we got back to the States, I'd spent more money than I earned, we found that Elvis was the biggest thing on records, and the band spent a week in New York recording Cuban Fire."
What Kenton hadn't explained was that "El Congo Valiente" was just one of a number of extended compositions Johnny Richards had written featuring the Latin-American idiom.
What Kenton didn't know at the time was that the complete Cuban Fire collection was destined to become the most musically popular and iconic album of his whole career. Stan's concept had been simple enough. Despite his enthusiasm for Latin rhythms, he'd often been chastised by Cuban musicians for not being sufficiently authentic in their use. Johnny Richards (family name Cascales) was Mexican by birth and spoke fluent Spanish, so Kenton commissioned John to spend time in New York with the Latin players and learn how to combine their genuine rhythms with North American jazz. "And then," Stan told Johnny, "I want you to create a Suite, but I want you to abide by all the rhythmic rules that those Latin guys have."
As painstakingly recorded for Capitol, Cuban Fire was an outstanding achievement of immense proportions. Not only did it kick-start Richards' career, leading to his becoming one of the most vital composers in modern jazz, the album also gave a significant boost to the Kenton orchestra, becoming that rare combination, a success in both artistic and commercial terms. Cuban Fire was music that reached a new stature and dimension. Highly dramatic—some would say grandiose—passages are tempered by periods of sheer beauty and repose: as on the opening "Fuego Cubano" which begins with a flurry of high-powered excitement and brooding menace, but soon relaxes under the calming influence of the main theme statement played by a Larsen-Noto duet.
Most memorable of the six dances is "El Congo Valiente," because of its distinctive theme, stated at the opening by French horns. The difficulties inherent in Richards' writing are well illustrated by "La Suerte de los Tontos," on which the horns have to start the piece "cold." There's a Wally Heider recording from the Macumba Club later in the year, on which the horns fluff the introduction four times, and don't get it right even on the last attempt. On another Macumba date Stan makes the horns repeat the intro because of clams, and ironically explains it's a difficult thing to play: "Because it's hard to understand the title—something about the Sweat of the Horns!" (Correct translation: "The Fortune of Fools.")
Richards makes liberal use of the band's complement of soloists on every movement of the Suite (which, incidentally, does not include "Tres Corazones," despite the liner notes to the CD release). All perform with vigor and passion, but my personal pick would go to Bill Perkins, despite stiff competition from Lucky Thompson, whom the band had picked up in Paris, and who would depart right after the recording. Perk's fine tone and ability to dovetail his ideas with John's music are beyond reproach. Throughout, Richards uses the soloists to develop his compositions rather than engage in free expression, and solo performers are compelled by the dynamics of the music to work within this controlled melodic framework. Doubtless many of the musicians would prefer the freedom of improvisation allowed by the Holman/Mulligan-type charts, but Richards had such command of the orchestra, and has composed melodies of such outstanding merit, he gained the respect and (sometimes grudging) admiration of everyone involved. Under Stan's leadership the band plays with great energy and flair: the battery of Latin percussion instruments added for the occasion complement but never overwhelm the orchestra, however crucial they are to the success of the Suite.
Mel Lewis explains: "Willie Rodriguez had organized a special rhythm section playing specific instruments that would go along with the South American rhythms that Johnny had researched before he wrote the music. Johnny had rehearsed them before we even got there, and now they had to learn to blend with a jazz drummer and tympani. Tremendous care and effort went into every aspect of the Cuban Fire recordings, which became one of the finest works of Johnny Richards with the Kenton band."[pp. 134-35; 138-39]
And in his notes to the Cuban Fire Capitol Jazz CD [CDP 7 96260 2], Ted Daryll offers this background to the evolution of “...the most musically popular and iconic album of … [Stan’s] whole career.”
“The band had set sail for New York from the port of Cherbourg, France on May 10th . The cruise home had allowed an exhausted group of musicians their first genuine opportunity to relax and re-charge since their opening concert on March 11th at London's Albert Hall. Now in Manhattan and beginning rehearsals for the Cuban Fire recordings, the bulk of the touring band remained intact. Inevitably, a few chairs would change but the rhythm section, key soloists, and the majority of the brass and reed players were still on board. That this group had had plenty of performance time in which to settle and age was indeed a welcomed element considering the anticipated challenges of the new Richards' scores that were awaiting it. One or two of the charts had actually been completed prior to the tour and were taken along and performed occasionally during it.
Kenton set up rehearsals in the ballroom of the since-deceased Riverside Hotel located on West 73rd Street. A room that boasted a Kenton prerequisite: resonant, natural wood acoustics. Richards had enlisted the aid of percussionist Willie Rodriguez and together they assembled and rehearsed a five-man Latin percussion unit (Rodriguez at the helm on bongos) to execute with authenticity the rhythms that Johnny had researched in South America. Mexico. Cuba and New York. Unknown to most, due to the guise of his professional surname, Johnny himself was of Latin heritage being born John Cascales in upstate New York on November 2. 1911. It is not difficult to speculate then that the Cuban Fire project may well have had a special and more personal significance than some of his earlier work. And indeed it did turn out to be the catalyst that would project Johnny Richards into prominence as both a gifted jazz orchestrator/ composer and soon-to-be bandleader.
On May 22, 1950 all factions were collected at the Capitol Records studios on West 46th Street where the first of seven titles, RECUERDOS, was recorded. The following day. FUEGO CUBANO. QUIEN SABE, and EL CONGO VALIENTE. LA SUERTE DE LOS TONTOS, LA QUERA BAILA and TRES CORAZONES (the little-known seventh dance from the suite that had been omitted from earlier issues due to time/space limitations) completed the sessions on May 24th. [Obviously, Ted has made the choice to include Tres Corazones in the Suite, so perhaps he was not aware of the Richards/Sparke/Venudor position on the matter when he wrote these notes.]
The success of the "Cuban Fire!" album can be gauged in part by the ascent of Johnny Richards' star immediately following its recording. Bethlehem Records, a leading independent jazz label of the period, suddenly offered Johnny an opportunity to record his first album as a leader. By August of the same year he had assembled a top shelf group of LA based musicians and was at Radio Recorders studios producing the memorable "Something Else" LP. (BCP 6011/6032 and reissued in 1984 by Discovery Records DS-895). Although only a "studio band," it became the archetype for a permanent working band that Johnny ultimately established in New York about late 1956/early 1957 and kept together on and off until as late as 1965...just three years prior to his untimely passing in 1968. The New York band can be heard on a minimum of three albums made during this period for Capitol. Roulette, and Coral Records.
In the almost 40 year history of the Kenton orchestra, an orchestra that had leaned long and heavy on things Latin, Cuban Fire! stands at the pinnacle of those many outings. It remains an extraordinary coupling of jazz orchestration/improvisation and the deeply felt rhythms of those near and distant cultures. Musicians aligned with the Latin jazz movement in this country continue to cite it as an influence and inspiration.
And in Stan Kenton: The Studio Sessions, Michael Sparke and Pete Venudor have this to say about the music on Cuban Fire “... which collectively by common consent are recognized as one of the most distinguished of the Kenton-Richards collaborations.”
Stan told us : "The reason we made CUBAN FIRE is interesting. We had recorded a lot of Afro-Cuban music, and a lot of the Latin guys around New York complained : 'It's wrong, you're not writing the music correctly.’ And I used to argue with them. I'd say : "Why do you have to have such rules about how you write Afro-Cuban music?” They'd say: 'Because there's a right way of doing things and a wrong way. Why don't you try to do something with good harmonic structures and good melodic lines and have it right rhythmically ?'
"So I told Johnny : 'I want you to go to New York and start hanging around with those guys, and study what it is that makes a thing authentic.' And I told Johnny : 'I want you to create a Suite, but I don't want you to write it unless you abide by all the rhythmic rules that those Latin guys have.' And it was easy for Johnny, because he spoke Spanish. So he did, he went to New York and hung around with those guys for two or three months, and then he started writing music which conformed with all the rhythmic rules that those Latin guys keep. It's different today, all that's been broken down, because the Latin guys have gotten into jazz, and the jazz guys have gotten into Latin, but CUBAN FIRE is completely authentic, the way it combines big-band jazz with genuine Latin-American rhythms."
The album was recorded a week after the band returned to the States from an exhausting two-month tour of Europe. EL CONGO VALIENTE had been performed to British audiences, and meanwhile Richards had been preparing in New York, as Mel Lewis explains : "We recorded CUBAN FIRE in the Ballroom of the Riverside Hotel in New York City on 73rd Street. Willie Rodriguez had organized with Johnny Richards a special rhythm section playing specific instruments that would go along with the South American rhythms that Johnny had researched before he wrote the music. Johnny had rehearsed with them before we even got there, and now they had to learn to blend with a jazz drummer, and we also used tympani. CUBAN FIRE turned out to be one of the finest works of Johnny Richards with the Kenton band."
A view echoed by Bill Perkins : "Tremendous care and effort was put into every aspect of the CUBAN FIRE recordings - perhaps the late Johnny Richards' crowning achievement. We spent many hours in the studio making sure everything was as perfect as we could possibly make it."
Though the discography lists six trumpets, only five play at any one time, with one man in reserve. Johnny Richards was present to help with direction, though Kenton conducted the orchestra during the sessions. Richards expert Jack Hartley says Johnny was adamant TRES CORAZONES (premiered on the "Music '55" TV show of August 9, 1955) was not intended as part of the Suite, though it has been included in the CD version. An unrecorded title, "Alma Pecadora", is headed "Cuban Fire Suite" according to the score held at North Texas University, and was presumably rejected as not up to the same standard as the other charts, which collectively by common consent are recognized as one of the most distinguished of the Kenton-Richards collaborations.”
In strictly Latin Jazz technical terms, the music on Cuban Fire! Breaks down this way:
FUEGO CUBANO (Cuban File) A commanding opening piece set against a bolero rhythm.
EL CONGO VALIENTE (Valiant Congo) An abierta, with exciting exchanges between the brass and rhythm.
RECUERDOS (Reminiscences) A slow, moody atmospheric creation, a guajira in rhythm.
QUIEN SABE (Who Knows) An attractive medium temp guaracha.
LA GUERA BAILA (The Fair One Dances) Afro rhythm, which Richards picked up observing dancers at weddings.
LA SUERTE DE LOS TONTOS (Fortune of Fools) This is a nanigo which continues the party atmosphere created in the previous title.
And in a fitting tribute to Stan Kenton’s always adventurous spirit, let’s close with this testimonial from George Gaber who played tympani on Cuban Fire! and who in 1960 went on to established the highly regarded percussion department at the University of Indiana School of Music:
“I played on Stan's Cuban Fire! album. Stan and I also met on campus when he had his jazz workshops back in the early '60s at Indiana University. It was at the jazz clinics that Johnny Richards suggested to Peter Erskine (later Stan's drummer) that he study with me. (Peter has gone on to the Maynard Ferguson band and to Weather Report.) Stan approved, and Peter followed me to summer clinics in Kentucky. Later, he came to study with me after he finished Interlochen High School.
From the first moment I played with Stan and what little I exchanged with him, I knew him as a true pioneer and champion of music making. The world knows of his innovations and popularity, but little of the man's true depth as a creator. In the development of art forms throughout history, there are various stages and periods of innovation. Kenton was a milestone. He can be counted as a pillar that helped support the arches of lesser lights.” [Dr. William Lee, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm, p. 219]
The following video montage features Johnny Richards "El Congo Valiente" as performed in concert by the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Balboa, CA, 9.2.1956 and set to the art of Wassily Kandinsky. Solos are by Lennie Niehaus, alto sax, Sam Noto, trumpet, Bill Perkins, tenor sax and Archie LeCoque, trombone.