Stan Kenton Rarities Add Up To Set Of Revelations

Collection offers new perspective on adventurous big-band leader.

In 1957, Bill Lichtenauer, then an 18-year-old in the Navy, wrote a letter to Downbeat magazine pointing out how great the shock would be when big-band leader Stan Kenton had passed on and no new music was left. Little did Lichtenauer know that 43 years later he himself would be responsible for issuing a posthumous collection of previously unreleased Kenton music.

In June, Lichtenauer's label, Tantara Productions, released Stan Kenton: Revelations (Repertoire Rarities 1940–78) — four hours of live and studio recordings of Kenton's big bands.

"I knew Stan fairly well," Lichtenauer said. "After he died in 1979, his estate, for whatever reason, was not very active in getting his music out there. So that is partly why I started my label in 1991."

During the past nine years, Tantara has put out three Stan Kenton records: Artistry in Symphonic Jazz, a Time for Love and Tunes & Topics. The label also released Alternate Routes, a two-band record with each fronted by a Kenton alumnus: French horn players Ray Starling and Joel Kaye.

Lichtenauer didn't set out to cover the full scope of Kenton. "I searched for seldom-heard and never-released stuff as a hobby for a long time before putting some records out in 1991. I was trying to finish this set and saw that the '50s to '70s looked doable, so then I figured why not do the '40s and just finish it off?"

Stan Kenton fanatics typically search for lost or rare recordings by dealing with collectors, a loose network of whom trade their stashes of material and see theirs as a noble calling. An Internet e-mail list exists called the Kenton List, and Tony Agostinelli publishes an all-Kenton newsletter called The Network.

Digging Up The Past

Now, some see Revelations as a good entry point for the uninitiated.

Bruce Talbot, who ran the Smithsonian Institution's jazz reissue program for seven years, is one of them. "For me, it will open the eyes of anybody to Kenton — that is, those who want their eyes to be opened. For people who are prepared to listen, it will change their view. There's lots of wonderful things that we never expected to hear."

The set is quite thorough. Various editions of his band — covered on the set — came and went through the 1940s and into the 1970s, often pioneering challenging new directions for the large-orchestra configuration. They included the "Artistry in Rhythm" band; the 40-piece "Innovations Orchestra" that included a string section; the "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" band, with its "progressive jazz"; and the "New Era in Modern Music" band of the '60s.

Since Kenton liked to use so many writers and arrangers, these bands differed greatly. Starting as a dance band with mildly adventurous charts, such as "Eager Beaver" and "Intermission Riff," Kenton went on to play Wagner pieces and atonal avant-garde works. Legend has it that after comedian Mort Sahl heard Kenton's 1948 "City of Glass," he told his audiences how he went to see the Kenton band at a nightclub, where "a waiter accidentally dropped a tray and three couples got up to dance."

The set's familiar sounds may, nevertheless, prompt some arguments about the identities of some of the performers. There is no listing of players for each track. According to Lichtenauer, "there were just so many lineup changes that is was impossible to get all the listings." Still, certain voices are instantly recognizable. Vocalists Anita O'Day and June Christy are here, as well as saxophonists Art Pepper and Stan Getz, trombonist Kai Winding and flamenco guitarist Laurindo Almeida.

Those first two 1940 cuts, "That's for Me" and "Prelude in C"

(RealAudio excerpt), show early traces of Kenton's first successful band, his 14-piece Artistry in Rhythm outfit. That band, which hit its peak of popularity in 1943, featured Chico Alvarez on trumpet and Red Dorris on tenor saxophone.

Revealing Rarities

Other rarities include "Gregory Bemco"

(RealAudio excerpt), a tune written for Bemco, then the cellist in the band. Later in the '50s, Kenton allowed and encouraged his band to swing a bit more, as on "Poem for Trumpet" (RealAudio excerpt), featuring trumpet great Conte Candoli, and "It Had To Be You," with saxophonist Zoot Sims.

The set is likely to prompt a re-examination of a bandleader about whom opinions differ widely. Some see him as a visionary whose progressive approach to big-band music catapulted jazz into the modern era. Others believe his quasi-classical style was pretentious and worth only a footnote in jazz history.

But the rarities heard here may prompt jazz scholars and aficionados to reconsider any previously reached conclusions about Kenton.

Talbot, for one, was stunned by Revelations. "It just blew me out. This demonstrated a whole different side of Kenton."