Stan Kenton - piano, arranger, conductor; Charlie Mariano - alto sax; Bill Robinson - alto sax; Bill Perkins - tenor sax; Bill Trujillo - tenor sax; Steve Perlow - baritone sax; Al Sunseri - trumpet; Bill Catalano - trumpet; Frank Huggins - trumpet; Bud Brisbois - trumpet; Bud Billings - trumpet; Kent Larsen - trombone; Bob Olson - trombone; Jim Amlotte - trombone; Archie LeCoque - trombone; Bill Smiley - bass trombone; Red Kelly - bass; Jerry McKenzie - drums
An innovative force in progressive jazz through the '40s and '50s, Stan Kenton (master of ceremonies at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954) brought his 18-piece orchestra to French Lick, Indiana for George Wein's Midwest Jazz Festival. They kick off their set with Bill Holman's swinging, streamlined chart, "Theme and Variations." Strictly through-composed, or as Kenton calls it "an orchestrated development on a theme," this opener presents a perfect example of the union of jazz and orchestral music. A mellow mid-tempo swinger, it cruises along luxuriously while showcasing the intricate counterpoint and lush harmonies of the horn section. Scaling the tempo up a couple of notches, they next launch into Holman's uptempo swinger "Kingfish," which is brimming with potent Basie-styled swagger and shout choruses and featuring a series of exhilarating solos from alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, trumpeter Al Sunseri and baritone saxophonist Steve Perlow.
Kenton opens "Artistry in Rhythm" with a stirring piano solo before the full ensemble enters with the Latin flavored theme, which is underscored by drummer Jerry McKenzie's salsafied approach to the kit. Marty Paich's "The Big Chase" is an exhilarating, aptly named romp that continues at a breakneck pace as the brass and reeds play a game of cat-and-mouse on top of McKenzie's surging swing groove. Tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins opens the sequence of solos with a flowing big-toned solo and is followed in turn by a bracing improvisation from trumpeter Sunseri, a burning solo by bari ace Perlow and a facile, swinging solo trombonist Archie LeCoque. They next mellow out with a dramatic reading of the melancholy torch song "My Old Flame," which features tasty solos by tenor man Perkins, trombonist LeCoque and trumpeter Bud Billings. The band sails through Bill Holman's progressively swinging arrangement of the Swing era staple, "Stompin' at the Savoy," which features an exuberant piano solo from Kenton. Tenorist Bill Perkins then steps forward to deliver an expressive, smoky-toned rendition of Bill Holman's hauntingly beautiful arrangement of the well-known standard "Yesterdays." Kenton's intro piano riff kicks off his Duke Ellington inspired composition "Artistry Jumps," which grooves along while showcasing stellar solos from tenor saxophonist Perkins and trombonist LeCoque.
Following band intros, they launch into Bill Russo's rhythmically charged, Latin influenced chart "23 Degrees East, 82 Degrees West," and they close their French Lick set with a blazing Johnny Richards' arrangement of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer tune "Out of this World," featuring a superb Bird-inspired alto solo from Mariano followed by forcefully swinging solos from tenor-man Perkins and baritone ace Perlow. Drummer McKenzie puts the capper on this dynamic number with a frantic barrage on his kit before they conclude with a just a taste of Kenton's evocative theme song, "Aristry in Rhythm."
Kansas native Kenton was born in Wichita on December 15, 1911. Raised in Colorado, he began playing piano as a child and later studied music during his high school years in California. His early bandstand experience came during the 1930s playing in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim. By 1941, he formed his first orchestra, which he patterned after Jimmie Lunceford's popular swing band. By late 1943, Kenton had experienced some success on the strength of his popular Capitol recording, "Eager Beaver." During the war years, principal soloists in the Kenton band included saxophonists Art Pepper, Stan Getz and Boots Mussulli and the featured singer was Anita O'Day. By 1945, the band continued evolving and gaining a larger following with June Christy as the singer and Pete Rugolo as chief arranger. By 1947, Kenton's band took a more progressive path with the input of modern jazz trombonist Kai Winding, trumpeters Buddy Childers, Ray Wetzel and Al Porcino, and Latin percussionist Jack Costanzo.
Kenton's most ambitious phase came in 1950 when he assembled his 39-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra, which included 16 strings, a woodwind section and two French horns along with star soloists like trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Shorty Rogers, saxophonists Art Pepper, Bud Shank and Bob Cooper, guitarist Laurindo Almeida and drummer Shelly Manne. Following two successful tours in 1950-1951, he returned to his 19-piece lineup and began performing the charts of such accomplished arrangers of the day as Marty Paich, Johnny Richards, Bill Holman and Bill Russo. The ranks of players during this time included alto saxophonists Lee Konitz, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, Bill Perkins and Charlie Mariano, trumpeters Conte Candoli, Sam Noto and Jack Sheldon, trombonists Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, guitarist Sal Salvador and drummer Mel Lewis.
Kenton's mellophonium band of 1960-1963 was another successful experiment and 1964s Kenton Plays Wagner was one of the more ambitious projects during the latter years of his career. In the early 1970s, Kenton formed his own label, The Creative World of Stan Kenton, and released several live concert recordings. He became an important figure in jazz education in his later years and continued leading his big band until August, 1979 when he suffered a stroke while on tour. Kenton died shortly thereafter at age 67 on August 25, 1979. (Bill Milkowski)