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Stan Kenton Alumni Band: Have Band Will Travel

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Mike Vax

Stan Kenton stipulated in his will that he wanted no ghost band after his death. Mike Vax was once Kenton’s first trumpet and road manager, and now directs the Stan Kenton Alumni Band, 12 of whose 20 members played with Kenton. Still, Vax has respected Kenton’s wishes. Have Band Will Travel is only partly an immersion in nostalgia. It is more a dreamlike Kenton montage, a meditation on his music.

Kim Richmond’s new arrangement of “Intermission Riff” takes Carl Fontana’s trombone solo from the classic Kenton in Hi-Fi album and voices it out for the whole band, turning it gigantic. Kenton also played “Long Ago and Far Away,” but here there is a suave solo by baritone saxophonist Joel Kaye newly woven through the sections of the band. “Tonight” is from the 1963 Grammy-winning Kenton’s West Side Story. Johnny Richards’ arrangement is retained, but with different instrumentation (no mellophoniums here). The high point of the album is hearing this song again, reconfigured in Richards’ achingly slow impressionism, intricate orchestration in the service of emotion. Liz Sesler-Beckman’s piano and Don Rader’s muted trumpet are like secular prayers. At the end, long trombone chords sing amen.

These live recordings were made at seven different concerts during a 2009 bus tour. The sound is somewhat pale and distant, but clear. Signature Kenton elements (complex contrasting inner melodies, jarring chords, blaring brass) materialize and submerge and flash out again, on tunes that Kenton played, or might have played, or should have played, like “Swing House” and “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Softly as I Leave You.”

Originally Published