New Horizons

by Terry Vosbein

from the Tantara CD
New Horizons, volume 1

By the time Stan Kenton conducted the premiere concert of the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra in January of 1965 he had been leading a band for nearly a quarter of a century. For those twenty-five years he championed contemporary large ensemble jazz, featuring a who’s who of talented instrumentalists along the way. But make no mistake. The Kenton band in all of its incarnations was first and foremost a writer’s band. From the Stravinsky influenced Pete Rugolo to the hard swinging Bill Holman, Kenton encouraged his writers to explore new horizons.

When the Neophonic Orchestra played that first concert Kenton took his support of innovative composition to a new level with the creation of a resident ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary jazz. “This is the second or third generation of jazz musicians, and the music of jazz is constantly evolving and developing,” he told the opening night crowd. “It is now time that we endeavor to establish a resident orchestra dedicated to the performance of this particular type of contemporary music.”

In the middle of the 20th century every major city in the western world, as well as many smaller towns, boasted resident orchestras performing primarily European classical music. But in the first half century of its existence, jazz never had a similar permanent home. The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra would change this.

During the early 1960s socialite Dorothy Buffum Chandler led a group of citizens in raising twenty million dollars towards the creation of a Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. As the city was eagerly awaiting the opening if its new state of the art facility, Stan Kenton called a press conference at LA’s Ambassador Hotel. He announced the formation of the International Academy of Contemporary Music, a new organization with three purposes. The academy would promote the composition and performance of contemporary music. It would serve as a clearing house for contemporary music and musicians. And it would sponsor the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, while encouraging the formation of other similar orchestras.

The crown jewel of the Music Center was the 3200 seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In December of 1964 the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra performed the opening gala concert conducted by its music director, Zubin Mehta. Less than a month later the Pavilion’s other resident orchestra premiered: the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra conducted by its music director, Stan Kenton. Jazz had a home.

An initial season of four concerts was planned, approximately one each month beginning in January. The second season was similar, while the third and final season, after a year’s hiatus in 1967, contained three concerts. All were planned for Monday nights, a typical dark night for the classical music events that dominated the Pavilion’s schedule.

Although Kenton made it clear that the Neophonic Orchestra was a separate entity from the Kenton Orchestra, there were many familiar faces on the stage that first night at the Music Center. Instrumentalists Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, Al Porcino, Bob Fitzpatrick, Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino, John Worster, Shelly Manne and Laurindo Almeida were familiar to even the casual Kenton fan. But in spite of this generous helping of talent in the orchestra, the Neophonic belonged to the composers.

Over five dozen composers and arrangers were featured during the three seasons of the Neophonic’s existence. They were given free reign by Kenton, encouraged to write without the limitation of commercial appeal. This fact in particular was attractive to the many composers chosen who had commercial writing gigs. Not coincidently, the composers selected for this first concert include several Kenton regulars.

The brass dominated orchestra chosen for the first season of the Neophonic concerts consisted of five saxophones, five trumpets and five French horns, as well as four trombones and a tuba. To the traditional four piece rhythm section he added vibraphone and tympani. This basic instrumentation remained fairly constant throughout the eleven Neophonic concerts. String sections were incorporated twice. And guest ensembles appeared from time to time, including Don Ellis and the Hindustani Sextet, Shelly Manne and his Men and the North Texas State University One O’Clock Lab Band.

Each concert featured one or more guest artists. Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Buddy DeFranco and Mel Torme all appeared with the Neophonic Orchestra during the first season. Critics have argued the merits of some of these performers as Neophonic artists. But no one could argue with the guest performer on the premiere concert, Viennese composer/pianist Friedrich Gulda.

Gulda and Kenton seemed destined to collaborate. However different their music may be, they shared an appreciation for contemporary music that drew from both jazz and classical. When Gulda appeared on the opening Neophonic concert almost fifteen years had passed since his Carnegie Hall debut as a twenty year old classical pianist. Long before Wynton Marsalis demonstrated that one can perform in both idioms and be successful, Gulda was doing just that. His classical piano recordings were praised, particularly his Bach. In 1956 he cancelled a master class in Salzburg in order to play in New York at Birdland. He was an enigma to both sides of the fence, much like Kenton himself.

Nearly everyone involved with the Neophonic concerts was paid for their services except the composers. And yet dozens of writers jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this piece of history. Interestingly, of the eight composers represented on this concert of America’s music (North America, that is), half were born outside of the United States: Rugolo from Sicily, Richards from Mexico, Lalo Schifrin from Argentina, Gulda from Austria. Of the twelve compositions on the opening concert, six were world premieres.
Hugo Montenegro’s Fanfare for the New opened the first Neophonic season with a flourish, announcing at once that this would be no ordinary jazz concert. The brass enter one by one with a crescendo of rhythmic statements before the percussion players add their counterpoint. The stellar drum set work by Shelly Manne and the polyrhythmic tympani punctuations of Frank Carlson make significant contributions here, and throughout this evening of new music.

Commencement is the opening movement of Johnny Richards’ Concerto for Orchestra, originally recorded on the album Kenton album Adventures in Time. With five loud chords announcing the start of this piece, the melody gets passed from low to high instruments as the tension mounts. And once the momentum starts there is no respite until the final decrescendo.

When Laurindo Almeida first joined the Kenton band in 1947 he brought the classical guitar along with his Brazilian background to big band jazz. Lush Waltz was written to feature Almeida on Kenton’s 1958 string album Lush Interlude. Here Rugolo rescores his soft spoken string arrangement for the brass dominated Neophonic, once again featuring Almeida in the solo role.

Opus for Tympani is a tour de force of tympani playing and choreography for Frank Carlson, prompting a pre-concert warning from a band mate to not trip during his cadenza. Surrounded by nine drums, Carlson plays the melody in the first go round of this mini concerto. A slow section follows a virtuosic cadenza. In the midst of this unhurried central segment we hear the familiar Kenton saxophone sound, reminiscent of early works such as Opus In Pastels. The original melody returns accompanied by dazzling up-tempo cymbal work by Manne and drum fills by Carlson.

Color It Brass examines the warm hues of the jazz orchestra. Chorale-like lush harmonies crescendo and explode. And composer Marty Paich shows that tympani can be used delicately as they exchange soft fills with the brass.

The Sphinx, daughter of Typhon, was the creature of mixed parentage whose unanswered riddle could lead to death. At least that was how the Greeks saw it. Set in a moderately fast swing tempo, the riddle here comes from the many contrapuntal lines made up of unusual accents and phrase lengths that composer Lalo Schifrin sets against one another.

Rhapsody in Blue is the only work performed on this concert not arranged by its composer. Yet it seems an appropriate choice in this line-up of forward looking jazz compositions. The Rhapsody was written by George Gershwin for the historic 1924 performance by Paul Whiteman’s band. In Bill Holman’s capable hands it becomes a contemporary re-composition featuring Jack Nimitz on the baritone sax.

Like Commencement, Artemis and Apollo is from Adventures In Time. In between quiet whole-tone piano statements at the beginning and end, Richards serves us a beautiful and romantic ballad. It is the tender and poignant side of these Greek twins that we hear. Conte Candoli provides a muted trumpet obbligato before turning over solo duties to trombonist Bob Fitzpatrick.

Neophonic Impressions ’65 offers a lively multi-themed celebration of the Neophonic spirit. From the rhythmic fanfares and brass chords at the opening, Paich takes us in and out of moods and tempos. There are jazz waltzes alternating with slow sensual latin sections. A yearning alto solo by Bud Shank gives way to Bill Perkins’s introverted tenor and Candoli’s tender but swinging trumpet. Manne and Carlson both play extended solos before the orchestra reprises the slow latin groove and the jazz waltz.

Trilogy is comprised of faster outer sections surrounding a slow romantic interior. After a slowly building introduction Holman weaves a unison swinging melody through the orchestra. The warm trumpet sound of Candoli takes over for the ballad segment. The tempo is picked back up with dense brass counterpoint. The ending fades to a texture reminiscent of the introduction, but hands us one last powerful statement of the theme to conclude.

In early 1950 Kenton asked Rugolo to contribute material for the first Innovations tour. In one week he wrote Mirage, Conflict, Lonesome Road and Salute. In its original version Conflict featured the wordless vocals of June Christy. This is the progressive jazz Rugolo, evoking feelings of happiness and anxiety in the vein of his Impressionism and Abstraction.

Music For Piano and Band, No. 2, subtitled a neo-concerto, is in three movements. The first alternates Afro-Cuban rhythms with medium swing, the second is a lush ballad full of Strayhorn-like harmonies and the finale is a swinging up-tempo blues. Gulda plays several cadenzas linking sections together, demonstrating his pianistic facility.

Like Gulda’s career as a pianist, in which he bounced back and forth from jazz to classical, the concerto seems to travel on both sides of the fence. There are outright jazz passages, be they swing, ballad or latin. And there are sections that reveal his debts to the Viennese masters, with hardly a reference to the jazz idiom. But unlike Rugolo and many other Kenton writers who combine elements of both, Gulda tends to keep his jazz and classical separate.

The orchestra repeated the last movement of the Gulda concerto as an encore. And the concert came to an end. The opening concert was a success, if only for the fact that it happened at all. Newsweek reported the jubilant atmosphere, saying that the “tieless cheered and black-tied applauded.” As performers and revelers celebrated their success backstage, Kenton proclaimed that “the seed is planted. From it, great things will grow.”

And the seed was planted. In the spring following the LA Neophonic’s debut Kenton conducted the North Texas State University Neophonic Orchestra. Later that same year saw the formation of the Collegiate Neophonic Orchestra. In 1972 former Kenton reedman Joel Kaye formed the New York Neophonic Orchestra and in 1994 he established the Neophonic Jazz Orchestra in Denver.

There were other ensembles Neophonic in character, if not in name. In London, Bobby Lamb’s Trinity Big Band was heavily influenced by the Los Angeles original. Kim Richmond’s Concert Jazz Orchestra and Jack Elliott’s American Jazz Philharmonic both pursued new horizons in jazz composition for large ensembles. The seed was definitely planted.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of that first Neophonic concert, musicians and fans gathered in Los Angeles to pay tribute to Kenton’s vision. Over a dozen concerts were presented, recreating some of the original works while looking forward with new compositions in the Neophonic spirit. New Horizons continue.