Konitz thought that his playing on this piece was the highlight of his Kenton work.
Piano – Stan Kenton; Saxophone – Bill Holman, Bob Gioga, Lee Konitz, Richie Kamuca, Vinnie Dean; Trombone – Bill Russo, Bob Burgess, Frank Rosolino, George Roberts, Keith Moon (2); Trumpet – Buddy Childers, Conte Candoli, Don Dennis, Maynard Ferguson, Ruben McFall; Bass – Don Bagley; Bongos – Denon Kenneth Walton; Drums – Stan Levey; Guitar – Sal Salvador
Recorded September 1952
23°N – 82°W / Portrait Of A Count / Invention For Guitar & Trumpet / My Lady /Young Blood Frank Speaking / Improvisation
Stan Kenton was and is a controversial figure. His music is often dismissed as being loud, pompous, brash and lacking in rhythmic subtlety. Throughout the nineteen forties that was often the case. Through the sixties and seventies, it was true. However, there was a period in the early fifties when the band played music that has rarely been equalled.
At the end of the forties Kenton expanded his band with strings making it into a small symphony orchestra: the Innovations Orchestra. Kenton was early into what became known as third stream. He was intent on making the music serious. He even supported the composer Bob Graettinger who wrote ‘City of Glass’ and ‘This Modern World’. These are works that over seventy years later sound difficult. However, carrying a large orchestra was ruinous financially. At the beginning of the fifties Kenton re-formed and gradually the character of the music changed Pete Rugolo who was the main writer up to that point concentrated on other work. Rugolo represented Capitol Records label, in New York. It was there that he heard Miles Davis’s nine-piece band in the Royal Roost and set about recording them. The singles: Godchild, Boplicity, Israel and Moon Dreams, with arrangements by Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan, defined ‘cool’ jazz when they were issued on LP as ‘Birth of the Cool’.
Kenton eventually brought in drummer Stan Levey who had worked with Charlie Parker and who had the power to underpin and swing a large group. Conte Candoli, a trumpeter who had absorbed the bop lessons of the forties sat beside Maynard Ferguson, a powerful high note trumpeter. In the trombone section was Frank Rosolino who had a technique the equal of J J Johnson’s. Lee Konitz, fresh from his work with Lennie Tristano, brought in his unique gifts. It was obvious that Kenton was very proud of the altoist and he was featured extensively. Bill Holman and Richie Kamuca played tenor saxophones in the section.
This period of Kenton’s work throughout the fifties is perhaps his finest, and it starts with this album and later ones: ‘Contemporary Concepts,’ ‘Portraits on Standards,’ ‘Sketches on Standards and the ‘Kenton Showcase’ albums of Holman and Russo, are among the other great albums produced during this creative phase.
Initially, Bill Russo wrote most of the library. He was intent on bringing classical music and jazz closer together. His pieces were admired by Kenton but most of the band considered that they were difficult to play. Bill Holman has only one composition on this album. It was, however, the first of many. Kenton realised Holman’s creativity and so did the band: they enjoyed the musicality and the lightness of Holman’s work. Kenton, however, worried that Holman was making the band sound too much like Woody Herman.
Bill Russo wrote well for brass, especially for trombones. His pieces could swing lightly but there was more of an intellectual underpinning, more of a third-stream feel. In later life he moved to write music that is more classical.
‘23°N – 82°W’ (originally called ‘Cuban Nights’), this piece refers to the location of Havana in Cuba starts with trombones providing a pulsating Latin-American rhythm. Russo, a trombonist himself, knew how to write for the instruments but it is a surprise to hear them used in this way, almost as percussion. The saxophone section enters over the trombone rhythm and eventually gives way to a solo from Frank Rosolino over a more conventional rhythm. Lee Konitz takes over from Rosolino and solos with verve and lucidity. Many people have commented on the playing of Konitz with Kenton, some have said that the work with the band is some of the best Of Konitz’s career. Here Konitz is assertive. Konitz himself has said that he found working in such a brass heavy band was difficult at times. The piece finishes with trombones taking up the rhythmic patterns again assisted by the drums of Stan Levey.
Conte Candoli came to Kenton from Woody Herman. He played with great clarity and he revels in the ‘Portrait of a Count’ written for him by Russo. It is a soulful, slightly melancholic theme played with an accompaniment for the other brass. A more exuberant side of Candoli is shown as the tempo is increased.
‘Invention for Guitar and Trumpet’, a typical pompous Kenton title. It features Sal Salvador and Maynard Ferguson. It is unusual in many ways. It is one of the first compositions by Bill Holman who eventually became the chief composer in the next few years. Holman became noted for his use of counterpoint and it is obvious here with the contrasting lines. Maynard Ferguson had a great facility for hitting high notes but for most of the piece he is restrained.
‘My Lady’, probably the most sensitive arrangement by Russo, is dedicated entirely to Konitz. Konitz enters quietly and is quickly joined by guitar and bass. This is Konitz at his best: he plays throughout in a manner that is coolly emotional. Konitz, who went to school with Russo complained that it was difficult to play. The challenge seemed to produce his finest playing to overlay the quiet fine background writing of Russo.
‘Young Blood’ is by Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan wrote about half the pieces on ‘The Birth of the Cool’ album. He turned to Kenton to make some money. His arrangements intrigued Kenton but Kenton worried that the band was starting to sound like Woody Herman’s. Mulligan strove for a light, swinging sound with an emphasis on counterpoint. ‘Young Blood’ was the first of many arrangements such as ‘Limelight’, ‘Swing House’ and ‘Walking Shoes’. Probably the biggest impact from Mulligan was on Bill Holman who was hugely influenced by Mulligan and his writing dominated the band for the next few years.
‘Frank Speaking’ enables Frank Rosolino to show his fluent technique. It captures the easy-going nature of the trombonist as well as allowing the band to drive him to excel. Russo sat next to Rosolino in the trombone section so he knew his capabilities well. At that time Rosolino was one of the greatest trombonists in jazz.
‘Improvisation’ was written by Bill Russo for the Innovations Orchestra and scaled down for this band. The original soloist was Art Pepper, here it is Lee Konitz. Russo stated: ‘I was trying to incorporate early 20th century classical music into the jazz idiom.’ In addition to Konitz there is Sal Salvador. The piece begins with a typical Russo brass flourish and a trombone solo from Bob Burgess. Konitz eventually emerges from under the brass There is a contrapuntal section with trumpet, tenor saxophone and trombone. The second section is Konitz and Salvador together improvising. The contrast between the lonely sound of Konitz against the weight of the brass, emphasises the beauty of the Konitz sound. Konitz thought that his playing on this piece was the highlight of his Kenton work.
In Spring 1952 this Kenton band began a series of weekly thirty minute broadcasts from wherever they were playing. The Concerts in Miniature continued until late 1953 and they are a unique record of a working band.
Kenton was not a great musician, composer or arranger. His strength was his ability to choose and back musicians, to take chances and to ensure that all those who worked with him shared, to some extent, his vision and passions.
Reviewed by Jack Kenny