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Review. Prom 71. Stan Kenton Centenary Tribute

BBC Big Band Stan Kenton Centenary Tribute
(Prom 71, Royal Albert Hall, September 7th 2011. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

“Prophetic.” The adjective definitely stood out in Geoffrey Smith’s programme note for the BBC Big Band’s Stan Kenton centenary tribute Prom last night.

That’s because Kenton has had one hell of a posthumous critical mauling – notably in UK reference books – for pretentiousness and self-importance, especially in the years immediately following his death in 1979.

But the critical pendulum is now clearly swinging back in his favour. This in part because Kenton’s early pioneering role in jazz education is seen in retrospect as having been so influential. Pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land, they say.

Not just the cultural significance, but the music itself is evidently getting re-examined. The work which Kenton and his arrangers produced- notably Bill Holman and Marty Paich – is finding a solid place in repertory. And performances like the Italian one on the video above (wow), and those at last night’s concert (ditto) underline his significance and relevance.

The instrumental highlight of last night’s Prom was “Concerto to End All Concertos.” Robin Aspland ‘s piano introduction had the couple in front of me settling down for a snuggle (what is it about piano introductions?) . Jeremy Brown’s powerfully physical bass solo brought forward the involuntary thought that Mingus must have known this music (from 1947) well. That was the piece – with some stratospheric trumpet high jinx from Mike Lovatt– which elicited the most vociferous cheers from the audience.

The lay-out of the stage and the extra players not normally seen or heard in a big band gave some obvious clues as to the extra tonal palette Kenton used – two French horns and a tuba, plus a whole kitchen of percussion for the Latin numbers.  But there is another extra voice which I found myself listening out for in the darker parts of the engine room: that extra trombone doubling bass trombone makes all the difference in the world. So, on behalf of those of us who think low, thank you Pat Hartley and John Higginbotham .

A vocal highlight (at 52:10 on the iPlayer, get at it!) was Lennie Niehaus’s arrangement Billy Strayhorn’s Daydream . Claire Martin made every word count with fine diction and phrasing, and every part of the band brought out the many muted colours in the arrangement. A gem.
Soloists on fine form last night – loads of them, but especially gritty Martin Williams on tenor sax and melodious Martin Shaw on trumpet.

I also enjoyed the moment when Jiggs Whigham, who had directed the proceedings throughout with humanity,  humility, style and precision, got involved in the percussion section. It was like the goalkeeper venturing into the oppostion’s penalty area for a last-minute corner, and a clear sign that the rising heat and infectious rhythms of El Congo Valiente by Johnny Richards need to be obeyed. An encore “That Old Black Magic” brought Claire Martin back.  Magic.    

The Prom is now available on BBC iPlayer

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