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May 2006

Stan Kenton with The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra
New Horizons Vol. I
Tantara Productions
The Los Angeles Neophonis Orchestra
New Horizons Vol. II
Tantara Productions

For the brief, artistically rich but financially bankrupt period of 1965–’68, Stan Kenton placed a black tie on jazz with his dream band, the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. Its home was as opulent as his vision: downtown Los Angeles’ brand-new, 3,200-seat Music Center. In December ’64, it opened to the sounds of the L.A. Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta’s baton. A month later it reverberated to Kenton’s noble experiment—despite the objections of Dorothy Chandler (socialite and fund-raising wife of L.A. Times publisher, Norman Chandler). Her quote: “This is a classical house—there will be no sour tones in here.”

Be it polyphonic or cacophonic, the Neophonic prevailed. Turnouts were embarrassingly disappointing. Local 47 didn’t help, insisting the sidemen be paid in full while Kenton could barely pay the copyists. Bless the composers; they gave their all for the privilege of hearing the best studio band/symphonic ensemble bring their works to fruition. Imagine this smattering of talents: Conte Candoli, Al Porcino, Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino, brass; Red Callender, tuba; Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Buddy Collette, reeds; Mike Lang, piano; Laurindo Almeida, guitar; and percussionists Shelly Manne, Emil Richards and Frank Carlson. Composers like Lalo Schifrin, Johnny Richards, Marty Paich, Hugo Montenegro, Shorty Rogers, Nelson Riddle, Clare Fischer and Bill Holman. Even guests like clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.

Another smattering: Montenegro’s “Fanfare for the New,” with its overlapping brass lines, kindled by the martial swing of drummer Manne, and Carlson exploring nine pitched kettledrums, was the ideal inaugural opener. In “The Sphinx,” Schifrin explores contrapuntal brass lines; Manne holds a master class in doubling orchestral accents and pianist Mike Lang re-creates the total canvas with wide-spread octaves. Richards bookends “Artemis and Apollo” with impressionistic flavors. Candoli’s muted obbligato works well against the gorgeous, brass-plated ballad. Paich’s “Neophonic Impressions ’65,” explored mood swings: Shanks’ bittersweet alto and Perkins’ introspective tenor play off each other as well as Manne’s drums and Carlson’s tympani.

Friedrich Gulda, the Austrian concert pianist who doubles on jazz, contributed his “Piano Concerto #2,” more sophisticated than Gershwin’s only piano concerto. The work is so successfully fused, the audience wouldn’t stop applauding until Gulda repeated its finale. Jim Knight provided another crowd-pleaser with his variations on a jaunty theme, ”Music for an Unwritten Play.” A daring submission was Fischer’s “Piece for Soft Brass, Woodwinds and Percussion.” (Who expected Kenton to endorse “soft brass”? He not only liked it, he recorded it for Capitol!) But why did Kenton choose Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”? Obviously one visionary can spot another, especially when both dig chromatic changes. Bill Holman provides a brilliant, truncated orchestration, and baritonist Jack Nimitz sparkles in a solo climaxed by a near subliminal quote from “An American in Paris.”

Hopes for a N.Y. Neophonic took root in New York in 1972 under Joel Kaye, who had studied with Richards. That lasted until ’88, when Kaye relocated to Denver, creating another incarnation of the NJO (1994–2001). What’s heard on “side four” is apparently culled from both ensembles, with 10 of the 14 charts by Richards. Best effort: Kaye’s bouncy 5/4 bossa, “Xochiquetzal.” The band’s well disciplined and big-sounding, but it lacks drama. It ain’t your father’s Neophonic.

Originally published in May 2006
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