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Jazz Reviews : A Kenton Lookback at John Anson Ford Theatre

It’s amazing how strongly the Stan Kenton legend persists. Nearly a decade after his death, a sellout crowd showed up at the John Anson Ford Theatre for a “Celebration of Stan Kenton” performed by an all-star ensemble of veteran musicians from the pianist-composer’s many bands.

Why such long-term loyalty? The Sunday afternoon concert’s occasionally chaotic (and poorly amplified) survey of some 25 years or more of big band sounds suggested that the persistence of the Kenton legend traces, as much as anything, to the fact that he was a leader with a vision, an open mind (despite his reputation to be contrary) and a willingness to grow.

Bombastic and pretentious as Kenton’s musical attitudes may sometimes have been, he also was discerning enough to encourage such diverse compositional talents as Pete Rugolo, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman and Marty Paich--all of whose charts were featured on Sunday’s program.

The opening set ranged from a typically stoic Chris Connor vocal on “All About Ronnie” to the fiery trumpet passages of “Peanut Vendor” and Laurindo Almeida’s colorful set of variations on “Artistry in Rhythm.” Conducted by Rugolo, the band’s first major orchestrator, it illustrated Kenton’s shrewd mixture of commercial and creative music in the ‘40s and early ‘50s.

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A set led by Rogers was far more monochromatic, in part because of the pedestrian quality of the arrangements, and even more so because they were performed so poorly.

A collection of Holman’s charts (conducted by Vic Lewis, the “English Stan Kenton”) provided the afternoon’s most important high points. “Stella by Starlight"--a stunning orchestration--showcased the alto saxophone of Bud Shank, who at 63 sounded like a musician admirably in search of more creative growth. Bill Perkins, featured on “Yesterdays,” also seemed enthusiastically willing to take some improvisational chances.

Paich’s final set guided the survey of Kenton’s music well into the ‘60s. Energized by the trumpet of Jack Sheldon and the alto saxophone of Lee Konitz (who demonstrated on “My Old Flame” and “Body and Soul” that he still is one of jazz’s most under-appreciated originals), Paich’s charts added a brightly swinging touch to an afternoon in which the Kenton artistry was still very much alive.


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