If you love big band music, whether it be The Duke, Tommy Dorsey, Don Ellis, Buselli-Wallerab, or any of a much too slim catalogue of such ensembles, then you have to dig Stan Kenton, one of the gents who figured as a key component in developing the mode in a pivotal era. Not only was the guy an amazing talent on the piano, but, like many of the best, he underwrote people who would become stars (June Christy, Lee Konitz, Maynard Ferguson, etc.) while employing stellar writers like Lennie Niehaus and Gerry Mulligan. Artistry in Rhythm is a generous nearly two hour cornucopia that centennials Kent's birthday in a fashion that will leave you wondering how in hell the last quarter century let this emerging style slip through the cracks.
The first thing noticed is how classical Kenton's approach could be, above and beyond swing and a love for latin and afro-cubano rhythms considered radical in his day. A good deal of this came from composer-arranger-pianist-horn-player Pete Rugalo, who quite interestingly had studied with Darius Milhaud in college—in fact, in Milt Bernhart's words, was "without question Milhaud's prime disciple"—then began been playing with Paul Desmond in an army gig while being influenced by Kenton's work, afterwards hired on with Stan and his ensemble in the 40s, both prime exponents of a newly birthed beast, progressive jazz (hey, progrockers, if ya wanna see where your sobriquet came from, there ya go), both men, as Wikipedia puts it, "blurring the boundaries between the ballroom and the concert hall". Though now mostly forgotten, the partnership was magical, sophisticated in a way that entranced listeners as Kenton began turning away from dance music.
Stan was ever a risk taker and acknowledged that he'd gone broke many times while evolving, enjoying tremendous artistic success but financial disasters. This was shown probably no more clearly than when Bob Graettinger wrote the magnificent City of Glass LP, and Kenton hailed it as a wonder that Dr. Robert Morgan, Graettinger's biographer, rightly avers was not jazz at all but modern classical music. More than once, Stan would take this new music on the road, lose money, then revert to the popular swing format, recoup, and prepare for the next audacious wrinkle. He also educated the public through radio, TV talks, and even jazz camps, the latter of which became tremendously influential. Peter Erskine, drummer extraordinaire and interviewed throughout the documentary, points to photos where he, Keith Jarrett, Dave Sanborn, Randy Brecker, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, and others attended the camps. Now, take a look at now many of these guys helped form the sound of ECM Records, one of only a handful of truly great labels in the world, and you'll begin to assess Kenton's true-est measure through the decades.
Artistry in Rhythm covers Kenton era by era, sometimes only two years, other times many, and is filled with clips of performances; on the bus footage; interviews with Stan; crosscuts to many of his players, critics, and such; but one particularly amusing flashback has the, oh my gawd!, demon Ronald Reagan introducing a televised Kenton date at the Hollywood Bowl -- and it's far from the only surprise in this well-paced, educational, and absorbing documentary. Thanks to this DVD, the man stands a decent chance of being rescued from the anonymity suffered in recent years. Happy Hundredth, Stan, and hoist a martini with Gabe and the Crew behind the Pearly Gates. Hey wait a minute, Gabriel plays a horn! Hmmmm………
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2011, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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