Bandleader Stan Kenton was a stickler for precision.
But the big band that played at producer Ken Allan’s seventh annual tribute to Kenton, held Sunday at the Irvine Marriott, and also featuring the Four Freshmen, was anything but tight.
In fact, it was often downright ragged. More than once, players looked at each other’s music, trying to decipher where they were supposed to be.
Surprisingly, despite the confusion, the music still sounded pretty good as played by this unrehearsed crew of L.A. jazz journeymen and ex-Kentonites. The roster included trumpeters Buddy Childers and Pete Candoli, trombonists Kenny Shroyer and Roy Wiegand, sax men Ray Reed, Jay Migliori and Greg Smith.
Still, the lack of coherence on the bandstand made you wonder what Kenton would have thought. At one point in his life, so the legend goes, he wanted to quit music and become a psychiatrist. This night might have speeded up that decision.
The 19-piece band was conducted in what might best be called a haphazard manner by former Kenton and Woody Herman band member Shorty Rogers. The fluegelhornist-arranger was brought in at such short notice, he said to a reporter during intermission, that he didn’t get a chance to fully look through the band’s book, nor did he have a list of his personnel, so he could announce solos.
You felt sorry for Rogers, who has never been one to bask comfortably in the emcee limelight. He looked for all the world as if he wished he were back on his boat in Marina del Rey, away from the crowd and just enjoying a quiet evening with his wife.
After the band’s second set, a number of musicians were more concerned with their own plight, not Rogers’.
"(The show) was pretty awful,” said one.
“Like walking on glass with bare feet,” said another.
Many, if not most, listeners thought otherwise. A number of the tunes in the set were delivered with panache, and solos by the likes of trumpeters Childers and Clay Jenkins, and saxophonists Reed and Steve Wilkerson were full of life.
Here’s the scenario that played out Sunday before a crowd of about 800 happy Kenton and Freshmen fans, in a concert that also honored composer Bobby Troup and Kenton arranger Pete Rugolo:
Allan hired a big band put together by bandleader Alan Yankee, whose book contains a number of great Kenton charts, among them “Peanut Vendor,” “Eager Beaver” and the requisite Kenton theme, “Artistry in Rhythm.”
Yankee wasn’t able to make this gig, so Rogers was hired. There he was, perusing Yankee’s list of tunes, finding one like Bill Holman’s difficult but swinging version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” counting it off and hoping for the best as the crew sight-read the chart.
Sometimes things worked just fine. “Savoy,” which starts with soft, intimate brass lines and leads into a full ensemble state that’s swollen with sound, went down with nary a hitch. Here Childers and altoist Wilkerson soloed powerfully over swirling background figures.
Troup’s mournful yet beautiful “The Meaning of the Blues” was arranged with class by the late Bill Stapleton, with Regan Wickman’s winsome lead trombone passages and subsequent improvisation standing out glowingly amid thick, written passages.
“Opus in Pastels,” written for just saxes and rhythm, was replete with warm and throbbing tones, and “Peanut Vendor” had plenty of snap.
But there was also “A Little Minor Booze,” which fell apart at one point, and “Lullaby of Birdland,” which never really came together.
The Four Freshmen, in an earlier set, were a much crisper ensemble. The voices of Mike Beisner, Greg Stegeman, Kevin Scott and Bob Ferreira blended dynamically on such tunes as “Love,” “The Day Isn’t Long Enough” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Original Frosh members Bob Flanigan and Ross Barbour joined the current members for a nice ride through “Candy.”
Producer Allan could avert a future band bomb by paying for a one-time rehearsal. Then, at the least, the musicians would have the benefit of knowing whether an arrangement was legible before having to perform it.