With considerable help from the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, Stan Kenton and Gerry Mulligan packed two halls over the weekend. Yesterday the SRJO played at the Kirkland Performance Center across Lake Washington from Seattle, the night before at the Nordstrom Recital Hall in downtown Seattle. The band is co-led by drummer Clarence Acox and saxophonist Michael Brockman. With one exception, everything they played was associated with Kenton and Mulligan.
Although the SRJO’s Mulligan repertoire focused on arrangements that he wrote for the Kenton orchestra, it included a cross section of pieces he composed or arranged for his own Concert Jazz Band and for others. The earliest was “Joost at the Roost,” which Mulligan wrote in 1948 for the Claude Thornhill band and, in a pared-down version, for the Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” nonet. Neither Thornhill nor Davis recorded the piece. Mulligan’s 1961 recording for Verve was never released. The SRJO worked from a score edited by Jeff Sultanof. In his comments on the piece on the e Jazz Lines website, Sultanof remarks,
…what is striking is that as early as 1948, Mulligan shows in this score that he had already formulated a concept to turn the big band into an extended small group, with linear give-and-take as in his small group with Chet Baker, and a lighter ensemble approach to orchestration.
The give-and-take included a robust extended tenor saxophone solo by Travis Ranney, with shorter tenor sax statements by Mark Taylor. Clarinetist Tobi Stone and pianist Randy Halberstadt also soloed on the piece. On Mulligan’s “Swing House,” the vigorous trombonist Bill Anthony initiated a string of solos that included Michael Brockman on alto saxophone, Taylor on tenor and trumpeter Jay Thomas, whose combination of daring and precision has been a feature of the band since its founding nearly two decades ago. Thomas went to the front of the stage for his feature, “All the Things You Are.” As successful as he was in mining the riches in Jerome Kern’s harmonies, he outdid himself in an extended improvised cadenza.
The one-chorus performance of “Where or When,” deliciously unhurried, had two highlights: the rhythm section’s delicacy as they introduced the piece, and the dynamics of the reeds performing the saxophone soli that Mulligan wrote as what amounts to an orchestrated improvisation. In a concert featuring Mulligan’s music, it was natural that the veteran baritone saxophonist Bill Ramsay drew solo assignments on several pieces. Ramsay shone in Mulligan’s celebrated arrangement of Django Reinhardt’s “Manoir de mes Rêves,” sometimes called “Django’s Castle.”
With a tone deeper and wider than Mulligan’s and a wit as dry, Ramsay poured himself into his solo on “Bweebida Bobbida.” The harmonic structure of “I Got Rhythm,” which Mulligan used for the tune, is important to the harmonic underpinnings of jazz, but musicians rarely play the song itself. The irony of Ramsay’s beginning his solo with the first eight notes of Gershwin’s melody struck some of his colleagues as such an amusingly absurd statement of the obvious that I wondered if they’d pull themselves together in time to play their next passages. Trombonist David Marriott recovered, and played a fine solo.
Mulligan’s “Apple Core,” based on the harmonies of “Love Me or Leave Me” was a feature for a long, successful tenor solo by Mark Taylor. “For Zoot,” he said, and though Zoot Sims’s influence was audible, Taylor’s individuality predominated.
The only arrangement chosen by the SRJO that Kenton wrote was one of the several versions of his theme that he put together over the years. “Artistry in Rhythm” opened, as Kenton often began it, with out-of-tempo piano, played with impressionistic overtones by Randy Halberstadt. As the piece progressed in intensity, Bill Anthony’s solo recalled such extrovert Kenton trombonists as Bob Burgess, Kent Larsen and Milt Bernhart. Trumpeter Thomas Marriott, played high and fast, with flurries of sixteenth notes, kicking the piece into full Kentonesque bravado that merged into a percussion fiesta by co-leader Acox and the band’s newest member, conga drummer Frank Francis Medina, Jr.
The co-leaders of the band are educators, Brockman at the University of Washington, Acox the award-winning director of the Garfield High School Band that has produced a number of graduates now prominent as professionals. Trombonist Scott Brown heads the band program at Roosevelt High School. Like Acox’s Garfield jazz band, Roosevelt’s consistently wins national competitions. Acox introduced six recent graduates from Garfield and Roosevelt, and one from Mt. Si High School. All are going on to university music programs and schools including Princeton, The New School and the University of Washington. With the SRJO, the youngsters played “A Little Minor Booze,” a classic b-flat blues written by the late Willie Maiden for the Kenton band. All soloed at a high level, but the one who particularly caught my ear was tenor saxophonist Isak Washburn-Gaines, a Garfield High graduate. It is unexpected and gratifying to hear a 17- or 18-year old boy who has absorbed Al Cohn’s way of playing. “He’s an old soul,” Acox said of Washburn-Gaines after the concert.
The exception to the Kenton/Mulligan rule was the concert’s opening number, the late Bob Florence’s “Carmelo’s by the Freeway.” Carmelo’s, a Los Angeles jazz club is gone and so is Florence. The spirit they represented survives in the work of the SRJO. From the quality of playing by those six youngsters, it looks as if the spirit has a future. To flourish, all it needs is an audience. There was a sprinkling of listeners under 40 in the hall yesterday afternoon, but no survey was necessary to conclude that the average age was well into AARP territory. I am told that the evening concert in Seattle on Saturday had a higher proportion of younger folks.