All the pieces seemed to be in place for producer Kenny Allan's 12th annual Tribute to Stan Kenton concert before a crowd of several hundred at the Rendezvous Ballroom inside the Irvine Marriott hotel on Sunday. Yet once the music started, something wasn't quite right.
The Alumni Orchestra, with a number of distinguished Kenton veterans, including bassist Don Bagley, saxophonists Ray Reed and Jay Migliori, was on the bandstand. The director, saxophonist Alan Yankee, had been a member of the Kenton organization during the years before the bandleader's death in 1979. Best of all, there were the Kenton charts, arranged for the band by such distinguished Kenton alumni as Pete Rugolo--the evening's guest of honor who unfortunately had to cancel his scheduled appearance--Lennie Niehaus, Gene Rowland and Gerry Mulligan.
But from the opening notes of the lush fanfare that long served as Kenton's theme, it was obvious that things weren't falling together as they should. The theme's inviting harmonics seemed distorted and timid as the band took its first steps into the music.
In the next piece, Kenton's 1943 pop hit "Eager Beaver," the band seemed to lose its way as drummer Frank Capp called out directions attempting to get the players together on the same measure. The throaty accompaniment from the trombones and baritone saxophone suggested bouts of laryngitis. Only the dancers on the gleaming hardwood floor beside the bandstand seemed to agree on the tempo.
Credit band director Yankee and his crew for not letting the rocky start get to them. After accompanying singer Tierney Sutton on a couple of non-Kenton style arrangements (by Orange County resident, saxophonist and bandleader Tom Kubis), the group found its footing, finding focus on arranger Rugolo's moody "Interlude," swinging hard on Rowland's "Opus in Chartreuse" and framing alto saxophonist Reed's bebop-flavored lead on "It Might as Well Be Spring" with a certain musical abandonment.
It was as if Hansel and Gretel, lost in the woods, had suddenly found a bread crumb.
If the first half of the evening's opening set pointed out the dangers of assembling an orchestra with a changing array of players for periodic engagements with little preparation, the second half demonstrated how musical ability and dedication can persevere.
This reflection of the Kenton legacy, a history that brought a host of top-notch players to Southern California who continue to play here, was as strong a tribute as can be mounted on behalf of a bandleader.
Suddenly, pianist Sydney Lehman began to mesh with the deep, low-pitched backing of trombones and saxes on "Interlude." The brass swung in snappy style against drummer Capp's beat on "Opus in Chartreuse" and saxophonist Migliori developed color in his tenor solo. Trumpeter Buddy Childers, whose arrival a couple tunes into the set seemed to focus his portion of the brass, made melodious magic on "Dancing in the Dark."
Vocalist Sutton's relaxed ways in front of the band helped pull it together. Her three songs in the middle of the set, which she sang in clear tones with an ear for jazz phrasing, divided the good from the bad and worked to give the band a fresh start.
Singing the Ella Fitzgerald classic, "A-tisket, A-tasket," Sutton got the band focused on rhythm, something that propelled the music through the rest of the first set.
After Sutton's appearance, the dance floor was suddenly even more crowded, drink servers got busier and the atmosphere grew more lively and secure.
Somewhere in that great ballroom in the sky, Kenton himself, no doubt, was rocking back on his heels and punching up the rhythms with his fist, smiling at what he'd created.