Friday, September 9, 2011

Tribute to Stan Kenton by the BBC Big Band

Prom 71: Tribute to Stan Kenton, London SW7
Clive Davis - Times (London, UK)
September 9, 2011

About time too, his fans would say. Stan Kenton's centenary gave the BBC Big Band and its conductor, the American trombonist Jiggs Whigham, the ideal excuse to dust down some of those incendiary, brass-heavy charts.

Anyone hoping to hear the bandleader's more ambitious excursions into the borderlands of classical music would have been disappointed by the populist choices on offer at this late-night Prom. But those Kenton admirers who always preferred to see his musicians concentrate on swinging to the max would have been more than satisfied. A Kenton alumnus himself, Whigham, resplendent in white waistcoat, ensured the nitro-glycerine levels were well topped up.

Never one for understatement, Kenton's appetite for excess and a touch of kitsch sometimes came close to turning him into jazz's answer to Cecil B. DeMille. As the satirist Mort Sahl famously joked after hearing the band play in a nightclub: "A waiter accidentally dropped a tray and three couples got up to dance".

In fact, there were moments of repose and lyricism in this concise set, most to be found in the assured guest vocals of Claire Martin, a singer who has always been drawn to the subtle shadings of June Christy and Chris Connor. Black Coffee was exquisite, and she calmly negotiated the testing contours of Billy Strayhorn's Daydream.

It was the more rambunctious material, though, that prompted the loudest response from the Promenaders. Concerto to End All Concertos produced the requisite fireworks, all delivered with precision. To modern ears El Congo Valiente, the extract from Johnny Richards's ground-breaking suite Cuban Fire, smacks of Hollywood-goes-to-Havana, yet there was no shortage of energy in the ensemble. Bill Holman's setting of that swing standard Stompin' at the Savoy was a typical mixture of intelligence and playfulness.

One of several numbers added to the programme, Portrait of a Count gave the trumpeter Martin Shaw the opportunity to revive memories of the late Conte Candoli. At the end of the evening, Whigham finally picked up his trombone and joined Martin on a high-spirited version of That Old Black Magic. Kenton would have approved.

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