Stan Kenton Favorites

Would love to hear some feedback on this incredible British big band leader....his recordings on cd seem to be difficult to find....I am also somewhat concerned over the quality of these cd's..comments/discussion please
Stan Kenton had a number of "editions" of his bands over the years, and most of them had superb musicians. His band of the late 1940's and early 1950's featured a group of saxophonists that became known collectively as the "Four Brothers", which -- if my memory is correct -- included Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. During the late 50's and early '60's, Kenton recorded a number of albums with "themes", such as "Stan Kenton in Outer Space". The "Outer Space" album was comprised of tunes named after planets, constellations, etc., such as "March To Antares". Kenton's arrangements were often quite original and dynamic, and featured fine solos. There is an LP -- maybe on CD as well -- of Art Pepper when he played with the Kenton Orchestra, and it's very interesting to listen to Pepper's early solo work. Kenton's arrangements didn't allow the degree of latitude in solos that Duke Ellington provided his band members, and some critics have said that Kenton's band failed to "swing" in the jazz sense. Nevertheless, Kenton provided a solid foundation for his musicians, and his collected recordings make for some great listening. Again, if memory serves, Mosaic Records released a boxed set of Kenton recordings, although I can't remember the name. Your post also asks about the quality of the CD's. Unfortunately, I can't comment, since all of the Kenton material in my collection is on vinyl LP.

In conclusion, let me add that if you like Kenton's work, then you might also try listening to Sun Ra's Arkestra, which also exhibited many of the characteristics of the Kenton bands.
Although I have a couple Kenton LP's, my favourite is a cd called Stan Kenton/At The Las Vegas Tropicana. Recorded in '59, it was transferred to digital from the original master tapes and sounds great,IMO. Capitol Jazz #35245, if that helps. By the way, I think Stan was Canadian,eh?
I believe you are correct, Wrayman, about Stan being a "Canuck" (although I'm not absolutely sure).

In my first post, I forgot to mention that Kenton used a large number of "West Coast" style jazz musicians in his band, which included not only the "Four Brothers" (mentioned above), but also Lee Konitz, Richie Kamuca, Conte Candoli, Jack Sheldon, Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne, Bob Cooper, and Frank Rosolino. For those who are interested in following this thread, here are some passages about Kenton's band taken from the book "Jazz Style: History and Analysis", by Mark Gridley.

"Kenton created a distinctive band style that is immediately recognizable. Though he did record ordinary arrangements of numerous pop tunes, and he did turn out a large body of dance music, the most impressive work he presented was nonswinging concert music which vividly exposed rich, modern harmonies. Two and three moving parts were sometimes presented simultaneously. The weighty pieces differ from the dance band tradition of big band jazz. A classical feeling was common in his music. Infact, the musicianship of his players was very high, with ensemble precision and tuning sometimes approaching the sterling standards of symphony orchestras. Usually performed without vibrato, his bass and saxophone parts had a dry quality that sometimes been termed "transparent". Some pieces featured trumpet parts which were high-pitched, loud, and often block-voiced as five-note chords....

Though Kenton's performances usually ranged from the softest to the loudest sounds, Kenton earned a reputation for leading the loudest big band. This was partly due to the preponderance of brass instruments...Additionally, some Kenton trombonists doubled on tuba, and one version of his band carried an entire section of mellophoniums (trumpet-French horn hybrids which were specially made for Kenton)...

Another trademark of the Kenton band sound was its glossy trombone tones. The ensemble frequently harmonized parts for five trombones that performed very smoothly and lightly, no matter how loud. For more than three decades, Kenton's trombone soloists invariably preferred high-register work, and they graced the beginnings of many tones with long, climbing smears. They used a meticulously controlled vibrato which was initially slow and then quickened dramatically near the tone's end...

To help put the Kenton band in perspective, a comparison with Count Basie might be helpful. Just as the feeling projected by a Basie band can be described as easygoing and swinging, the feeling projected by a the Kenton band can be described as serious and intense, with an emphasis on massiveness. Much of the Kenton repertory is solemn and weighty, essentially 20th-century concert music scored for trumpets, trombones, and saxophones plus rhythm section...The band's character was based more on elaborate arrangements than on the simplicity and swing feeling associated with Basie...Kenton's approach contrasts markedly in that its effect was frequently similar to a brass choir, not a big jazz combo.

It was not as a pianist or composer that Kenton left his greatest mark. His major contributions to jazz history were his skill at public relations and his motivation and talent for finding and leading creative modern musicians and composers. Lying behind this contribution is the important fact that because of his band's great popularity during the 1940's -- "Tampico" and "Artistry in Rhythm" were million-sellers -- Kenton became financially fee enough to invest in musical experiments. He channeled this freedom into hiring relatively unknown writers and commissioning ambitious compositions which had little chance of commercial success...In addition, Kenton employed hundreds of musicians who may not otherwise have received much exposure...Moreover, Kenton was one of the founders of the college stage band movement, spawning the enormous jazz education establishment."
If you have enjoyed the Stan Kenton band through the years, you just missed a great opportunity. The Mike Vax Band toured for about a month in April/May. They are largely composed of alumni from the Kenton Band(s), including Mike himself. I had the good fortune to see them in Raleigh, and they were FANTASTIC. I must admit I have not been a big band fan, and was not very familiar with them. What an incredible surprise and delight. He has a website if you are interested:
The Mike Vax Band has played in Seattle a number of times, and they did an excellent LP in the early 1980's that I have enjoyed over the years. Don't know how much of their recorded material is available, but it's worth seeking out.
Sdcampbell, thanks so much for your excellent review and to the others for such great in sight into Kenton. This has all rekindled my interest in his accomplishment and past performances. I was in my teens when I first heard of him and was totally impressed, not to mention in awe over the loudness factor of the performances themselves. I understood that Kenton actually used cotton stuffed in his ears during performances. Back to Music store on the hunt! Mike Vax is also on my list!
According to one web site Stanley Newcomb Kenton was born December 15, 1911 in Wichita, Kansas. Didn't think he was Canadian, would have come up in school.