The Stan Kenton Alumni Band
| By Jack Bowers
Stan Kenton Alumni Band
Have Band Will Travel
There was a time (often referred to as "the good old days") when the phrase Have Band Will Travel would have been commonplace, as popular touring bands traversed the country on an almost daily basis to brave one-night stands or longer engagements in ballrooms, nightclubs, auditoriums or other venues. These days, one can count the number of traveling bands on the fingers of one hand and still have enough uncounted digits left to latch onto some fried chicken or corn on the cob.
Among the few exceptions to the rule is the Stan Kenton Alumni Band, formerly known as the Mike Vax Big Band Featuring Alumni of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Thanks mainly to Vax's tireless efforts, the band has visited a part of the country almost every year for more than a decade, and has produced almost half a dozen CDs embodying music performed on those tours. True, these aren't year-long excursions (one month at best, and usually more concise), but given the desolate position of big bands these days even that is quite a remarkable achievement. And for those on the receiving end of the band's performances, it's far better than nothing. For many, it represents their only exposure to a live big band playing music from the Stan Kenton era and beyond.
The fifteen selections on Have Band were recorded during the ensemble's 2009 spring tour in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As always, themes associated with the Kenton orchestra are interspersed with standards and exciting new charts by members of the band and others. The album opens on both fronts with Ray Wetzel's venerable "Intermission Riff," marvelously re-scored by Kim Richmond in the image of SuperSax, using trombonist Carl Fontana's solo from the album Kenton In Hi Fi as the basis for a swinging new anthem. Solos are by tenor Alex Murzyn and bassist Chris Symer, tasteful introduction by pianist Liz Sesler-Beckman. Following trombonist Dale DeVoe's opulent arrangement of the ballad "Softly As I Leave You," the band performs the first of five original compositions, Paul Baker's incendiary "El Viento Caliente." The others are Rich Woolworth's impish "Five & Dime" (in 5/4 and 10/8 time),Steve Huffsteter's breezy "Joint Tenancy" (a.k.a "Alone Together," on which he and fellow trumpeter Don Rader happily share the premises), Eric Richards' free-wheeling "Crescent City Stomp" (performed twice, the second as a shorter "radio edit") and the late great pianist Bob Florence's "Our Garden," beautifully sung by Scott Whitfield and Ginger Berglund who also penned the lyrics.
The Kenton-inspired numbers are Johnny Richards' "Artemis and Apollo," Gerry Mulligan's aptly named "Swing House" and the standard "Long Ago and Far Away" (arranged for the Kenton orchestra by Lennie Niehaus). The other admirable charts are by Richards ("Tonight"), Richmond ("Invitation," on which he's the featured soloist on alto) and baritone Joel Kaye ("The Shadow of Your Smile"). Whitfield and Berglund reappear on Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." Besides those already named, the band's engaging soloists include Kaye (enchanting on "Long Ago and Far Away"), trumpeter Vax, trombonists Whitfield and Roy Wiegand, tenor Pete Gallio, baritone Keith Kaminsky and drummer Gary Hobbs who anchors the sharp and sure-handed rhythm section.
Unlike other "road" albums, Have Band rarely endures the uneven sonic bumps that bedevil many concert performances. Hats off to engineer Tom Johnson for that. And hats off to Vax (Kenton class of 1970-72) and everyone in the band for producing such a marvelous recording under less than optimal conditions. As singer Toni Tennille writes in a brief tribute: "This CD is for all lovers of the innovative Kenton sound played by great musicians, and also for young Jazz musicians who will find so much to admire and learn from here." You couldn't sum it up much better than that.