New Concepts of Bill Russo

by Terry Vosbein

By 1950 Stan Kenton had achieved more with his big band than could have ever been imagined. The big band era had been slowly dying for almost a decade. Small groups and singers were the norm. Yet during this decade Kenton’s popularity continued to climb. By the end of the 1940s he had won virtually every award that could be given to a big band. Starting with an exciting dance band in the early 1940s, by mid-decade Kenton began moving away from the dance band formula. With the hiring of Pete Rugolo as chief composer/arranger in 1945 the Kenton band quickly became an innovative jazz orchestra, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable big band composition by incorporating techniques borrowed from classical music. The latter half of the 1940s found the Kenton band winning major awards from jazz magazines for the band, the soloists and the writers, while at the same time moving further from the mainstream of jazz. As the band moved into the 1950s another classically aware composer would take over the reigns from Rugolo in defining the Kenton sound: Bill Russo. Remaining with the band for only four years, he left behind a legacy of quality progressive music.

Russo had been leading and writing for an experimental big band in Chicago during the late 1940s. “Pete Rugolo had heard my rehearsal orchestra a few years earlier at the Via Loga Ballroom in Chicago, and was very impressed by it” (qtd. in Harris 92). On Rugolo’s recommendation, Russo joined the Kenton orchestra in 1950. “I came to the orchestra writing reluctantly because I was trying to develop as a jazz trombone player” (qtd. in Harris 92). His first tour with the band was with the forty-piece orchestra termed “Innovations in Modern Music” by Kenton. With the encouragement of Kenton, Russo submitted several compositions. His reworking of a two year-old composition into Solitaire became the first of over forty arrangements and compositions by Russo that Kenton was to record. Three months later Kenton would follow Solitaire by recording Russo’s dynamic Halls of Brass.

Following the Innovations recordings it would be two years before Kenton would record more of Russo’s music. But within a short time he was the leading contributor to the library, composing or arranging all of two albums and the bulk of two additional albums. In doing so, he defined the concepts that would propel the Kenton sound into its next era. In typical Kenton fashion, the first of these albums announced this new era in Kentonia: New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm. Russo led the way to these new concepts.

New Concepts was the first Kenton album of all original compositions. It was recorded in September of 1952 and Russo composed five of its eight titles. Three of these five fall into the more traditional jazz idiom of ballads and swing numbers. One is an Afro-Cuban feeling with long Tristano influenced lines. And one is a classically influenced adventure.

The structures and chord progressions of many of Russo’s jazz oriented originals are in step with much of the jazz and popular music of this period. He utilizes standard song forms (usually AABA 32-bars) and rich harmonies. It is upon this setting that Russo overlays his individuality. His melodies are long and linear, full of rhythmic and melodic twists. His music abounds with hemiolas. His orchestrations are full of surprises. “What I had in mind, mostly, was what could be called a Tristano-like long-line fast piece, with a theme that was very soloistic, in a Lester Young/Tristano/faintly Bird-like manner” (Russo “Writing music for SK”).

But it is his sense of drama that truly sets this music apart. In only three or four minutes Russo is able to sculpt a perfect drama. His miniature tone poems generally begin and end softly. But the ebb and flow and eventual climatic peaks that he creates are of Wagnerian proportions.

Along side the jazz ballads and swingers on New Concepts is the evocative Improvisation, first written for the Innovations Orchestra, and re-orchestrated here for conventional band. Aspects of this work include sections of free-form group improvisation (surely a Tristano influence). Although there is a jazz ballad quality to portions of Improvisation, the majority of it is derived from contemporary classical music. Throughout his tenure with the Kenton orchestra Russo would continue to draw on both jazz and classical procedures. Quite often, he synthesized these two styles.

Like Ellington, Russo carefully crafted his compositions to place just the right player in the best context. He found a perfect balance between notated sections and improvised flights. The soloist he counted on the most was alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz, whom Russo had known since high school in Chicago “As boys, Lee and I familiarized ourselves with two composers: Bach and Stravinsky[...]with Stravinsky, I think it was the color and excitement that attracted us” (qtd. in Harris 91). They also both studied with Lennie Tristano. “Tristano was an extraordinary influence on Lee Konitz and me when we studied with him in the 1940s. He altered our lives to an extent that cannot be measured” (Russo “Re: Tristano”).

When Russo convinced Konitz to join him in the Kenton orchestra in early 1952 he had an ally to help shape the band’s sound. According to Russo, he and Konitz “were pushing the band into an entirely new direction” (qtd. in Harris 92). He featured the alto player on over half of the instrumentals he wrote for that band. Russo said that he “was interested in the Tristano style and working out a new idiom for the jazz orchestra[…]Lee’s presence in the band made it a little more possible” (qtd. in Sparke 100).

Two other soloists frequently utilized by Russo are Conte Candoli and Frank Rosolino. Russo said that “Rosolino opened up the technique of trombone playing. We were all staggered by what he could do” (qtd. in Friedwald 19). Of the nineteen instrumental Russo recordings on which Konitz, Candoli and Rosolino were present, there are only three in which one or more of these musicians is not featured. On the New Concepts album Russo composed original features for each of these three musicians (Portrait of a Count, Frank Speaking and My Lady).

The trombone is featured throughout the works of Russo. By the 1950s the trombone section and soloists had gained a role of prominence in virtually all of the writing for the Kenton orchestra, showing the influence of Rugolo’s expert handling of the instrument. It was Russo’s instrument, and at the time he wrote much of this material he played in the Kenton trombone section. There are numerous solos given to the trombone. On each of the four albums with which Russo was involved the solo trombone is showcased in a feature number: Frank Speaking (Frank Rosolino) on “New Concepts,” Over the Rainbow (Bobby Burgess) from “Sketches on Standards,” I Got It Bad (Rosolino) from “Portraits on Standards” and A Theme of Four Values (Bob Fitzpatrick) on “Showcase.” As a section the trombones are featured far more than any other section. He even composed one work (Thisbe) on his final Kenton album that was composed for five trombones and rhythm section. And his composition An Aesthete on Clark Street featured the trombone trio of Rosolino, Bobby Burgess and Russo himself in section work and solos.

With little if any comping coming from Kenton’s piano, Russo frequently backed the improvisations with pads of lush harmonies. In handling the solo accompaniments in this manner, Russo maintained a tight control over the sound, even during lengthy improvisations. Smoothly voiced chords, generally in half-notes, provide a sustained harmonic pad upon which the various soloists take flight. These rich chords vary subtly in texture, with the chorale being passed from section to section. Major and minor ninth chords are the most common, with the lowered ninth frequently added to dominant seventh chords.

The music Russo contributed to the Kenton orchestra was never in the mainstream, even at his most swinging. In 1965 Jack McKinney wrote in Crescendo that “little of his music swings in the accepted manner and when it does, it is with an ethereal rather than an earthy movement” (McKinney 18). Russo admits that he “didn’t write things in the general language of the jazz idiom” (qtd. in Harris 93). His rhythms at times go against the natural tendencies of jazz phrasing. In 23 N°-82°W, from the New Concepts album, Russo has several examples of repeated seven-beat phrases while the rhythm section continues in four. By the final climatic section he actually notates the trombones in a new time signature, seven-four, while the rest of the band continues in four-four. “Most of the guys not only had trouble playing my pieces, but they didn’t like them” (qtd. in Harris 93).

In looking at the musical style of Bill Russo, two works will be discussed: his arrangement of Fascinating Rhythm, from early 1953, and his original composition, Egdon Heath, from just over a year later. Though he composed and/or arranged around eighty scores for the Kenton Orchestra, these two pieces offer an overview of Russo’s most common tendencies during his tenure with Kenton in the early 1950s. This brief analysis will highlight some of his compositional devices, though it will not attempt to discern the intentions of the composer. Some strokes of genius come from gut-guided decisions. Others are the result of painstaking thought. Either way much can be learned by examining the notes on the score.

Fascinating Rhythm
Composed by George and Ira Gershwin
Arranged by Bill Russo
Recorded by the Stan Kenton Orchestra 30 January 1953
Capitol Studios, Los Angeles
At about this time I wrote a piece called Gazelle, later recorded by Shelly Manne [in April 1953, for Contemporary]. This piece, Gazelle, featured alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, trombone, and tenor saxophone and was voiced in the thickened line. Gazelle was never recorded by the Kenton orchestra, but I used the basic sound of the four wind instruments in thickened line on several pieces that were recorded, including this one, which is perhaps the best of the grand total of 50 arrangements that I have written in my life.
qtd. in Friedwald 21
Gershwin’s composition, Fascinating Rhythm, was arranged by Russo and recorded by the Kenton band in January of 1953. It was featured on Sketches on Standards, an album of danceable yet highly exciting popular melodies. Russo arranged (or ‘recomposed’ as he prefers) six of the eight titles on this album. In each of these pieces Russo clearly demonstrates his skill at working within a standard form and with traditional jazz harmonic progressions. Many of his distinctive compositional traits are found within the three minutes of Fascinating Rhythm.

Russo’s “thickened line” concept is evidenced in Fascinating Rhythm right from the first measure. Modeled after the “four brothers” sound, Russo wrote about this concept in a 1967 downbeat article as well as devoting a chapter to it in his 1968 treatise on Jazz Composition. By voicing a melody in four close parallel parts, he achieved a thickened form of the unison line. He generally harmonized chord tones with chord tones, and non-chord tones with diminished seventh chords or parallel harmonies. In full ensembles there is frequent octave doubling of the four-part voicing.

In his composition Gazelle, he used an alto sax, a tenor sax, a trombone and another tenor sax with the thickened line. He used this combination frequently, and on his scores the word “Gazelle” can sometimes be found over the lead alto part. In Fascinating Rhythm he uses the gazelle ensemble during most of the first chorus and returns to it at the end. Although all four of the gazelle participants are given improvised solos, Russo shows favoritism. While Holman and Kamuca are each given eight measures, Konitz has twelve and Rosolino a full sixteen.

One device employed frequently by Russo is the use of three distinct lead trumpet players, depending on the context. Buddy Childers was assigned the traditional lead role. When the lead trumpet line soared to the stratosphere, Maynard Ferguson took over the line. And in more intimate jazz combo settings of mixed horns, Conte Candoli played what Russo thought of as the “jazz lead” (Russo “Re: Trumpets”).

An example of the lead line being passed around the band begins in measure 28, at the conclusion of the first chorus. A seven-beat phrase is played three times. Each is harmonized identically in four-part thickened line. And each time it is played an octave higher and with a different lead player. The first time it is played by the gazelle ensemble, with Lee Konitz on the lead line. This is followed by the Conte Candoli led ensemble an octave higher. Then Maynard Ferguson leads nine brass players when the phrase reaches its top octave. Yet another lead player, this time Buddy Childers, the first trumpet, takes over on the consequent phrase, which Ferguson finishes by playing the final three E-flats above the ensemble. The gazelle ensemble leads into the start of the next chorus, once again with Konitz on the lead line. Continuity is preserved throughout the shifting ensembles by utilizing the thickened line with each grouping. With the exception of the gazelle ensemble, there are numerous octave doublings.

At first the names “Buddy,” “Count” and “Maynard” could be found on various parts: on Lover Man “Count” is on the 4th part, on Frank Speaking and Improvisation, the 2nd part; “Maynard” generally is on the 3rd part, but on Improvisation he plays 1st and “Buddy” plays 3rd. But as they departed the band it was soon standardized into what it remained until the final Kenton band: the traditional lead on trumpet one, high notes on trumpet three and the fifth trumpet was the solo chair.

The arrangement of Fascinating Rhythm consists of three and a half choruses (see figure 1). Following the composition’s A B A B' form, Russo creates a crescendo of excitement that reaches its peak in the second A section of the third chorus. These eight measures are very similar to the similar section of the second chorus. Both are voiced for full ensemble in a thickened line, with octave doubling. But the high-range lead of Ferguson’s trumpet brings the arrangement to its high point, before turning it over to Holman’s improvised solo.

The sudden modulation, from Bb major to C major, in the last half chorus, is achieved with an Eb13(#11) chord. This chord functions as a bluesy sub-dominant chord to the previous key, as well as the tri-tone substitution of the dominant to the initial Dmin7 chord of the new key. In most of Russo’s arrangements of this period there is usually a skillful modulation inserted.

As with all of Russo’s pieces on these albums, the pacing of Fascinating Rhythm is exceptional. Beginning with just four tightly voiced instruments and accompanied by only sparse interjections by the bass, it builds continuously in momentum. Brief shout choruses, each surpassing the previous one, are separated by short improvised solos.

In keeping with the spirit of the title, Russo injects his own fascinating rhythms, emphasizing and exploiting the odd phrase lengths of Gershwin’s melody. The original melody already contains such rhythmic devices, and Russo adds some of his own. In both the extension to the first chorus and in the ending, the seven-note opening melody is repeated three times. As noted earlier, each repetition is moved up one octave. In the diminuendo at the end of the arrangement each repetition is sounded an octave lower.

There are several other instances of Russo’s rhythmic fancies. In measure 20 and again in measure 34 Russo anticipates the downbeat, with an accented fourth beat. The ensemble figures following Kamuca’s solo imply two measures of three-four. And in the first shout chorus Russo uses repeated groups of five eighth notes to build excitement.

Fascinating Rhythm is one of the few Russo titles to end loudly. Virtually all of his endings diminuendo to the last note, after reaching climaxes of great proportions. In fact, Fascinating Rhythm does diminuendo at the end, but the entire band hits a loud dissonant chord to conclude this work (Dmaj7 with an open fifth, C and G, in the bass).

Egdon Heath
Composed and arranged by Bill Russo
Recorded by the Stan Kenton Orchestra 3 March 1954
Capitol Studios, Los Angeles
This piece most clearly shows some of the benefits that I reaped from my study with John Becker and I am still very proud of it. It is, incidentally, a very good example of what has come to be called minimalism.
qtd. in Friedwald 26
In Egdon Heath another side of Russo is strongly in evidence. In this work he demonstrates a more classically influenced style. But the jazz sounds are also heard clearly, in what is perhaps Russo’s most successful blending of the two musical worlds. It was the second to last Russo title recorded by the Kenton Orchestra, from an album of Russo compositions called Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Russo. It is named for the mysterious moor that is the centerpiece of Thomas Hardy’s 1878 novel, The Return of the Native.

During the early 1950s, while still with Kenton, Russo began studying with John Becker. Becker was Russo’s “first real composition teacher (after Tristano, but that's another story)[...]Egdon Heath was very influenced by him – not the minimalism, but the general compositional construction of the work” (Russo e-mail). In it Russo demonstrates his skill outside of the context of the popular song form and traditional jazz harmonies. It is his most advanced composition for Kenton and shows his growth during his tenure with the band. In this composition there is a mixture of jazz rhythms and harmonies with non-jazz compositional techniques. There is an alto improvisation by Dave Schildkraut over jazz harmonies. There is swing. And there are techniques Russo utilized that over a decade later would be known as minimalism.

The overall structure of Egdon Heath is an ABA' ternary formation (see figure 2). The initial and concluding sections feature short repetitive figures layered over one another that create a shimmering blanket of sound. The composition begins with a descending five-note scale of quintuplets that is repeated over and over by the solo alto. Over the following measures, instruments enter one by one with figures that are repeated unchanged until the end of this section.

After each instrument has entered, there is a pan-tonal blanket of sound created that incorporates all of the notes of a C major scale. To this, three harmon muted trumpets enter with staccato eighth notes voiced in parallel fourths. The trumpets continue, their pitches also encompassing all of the notes of the C major scale. This type of texture is similar in concept, though much shorter in length, to what became known as minimalism in the 1960s. This blanket of sound is the setting for the trombone melody that enters in the eighth measure.

The background remains static as the solo trombone slowly moves away from the initial harmonies with its lush jazz-like melody. In spite of the free flowing sound of the trombone melody, it is very tightly organized. It is motivically developed from the initial five-note descending passage of measure one. In fact, this descending fifth plays an important role throughout the composition. The seven measure antecedent phrase emphasizes the melodic fifths D-G, A-D and finally B-E.

The consequent phrase of five measures is based on a motive that is a variation of the first motive: three short notes followed by an ascending leap of a perfect fifth. This new motive is developed, as the phrase moves away from the C major tonality. At first, C-sharps are introduced as lower neighbors. But in measure 17 the C-sharp (now D-flat) ascends to A-flat, before returning to and sustaining the D-flat to conclude the opening melody, a half-step lower than it started.

A transition section follows the trombone melody in which the background figures slowly come to a halt, sustaining the final note of each figure. Accented dissonant chords appear in short separated hits. Each chord becomes more dissonant as higher notes are added. This section concludes with the full ensemble playing a seven-note chord, comprising all of the notes of the C major scale, with an A in the bass.

The second section moves suddenly into double-time swing. The full band is voiced in an expanded thickened line, in four and five-part harmony, with octave doublings throughout. There is a great deal of contrary motion between the ensemble and bass of the homophonically voiced chords. There is no rhythm section playing through this section except the drums.

The middle section of Egdon Heath is more overtly developmental than the first section. It takes the descending perfect fifth from measure one and works it out in almost every phrase. Although there is much harmonic activity, this section is framed in the key of G minor. It is the first chord heard. And it serves as the home key for the alto solo.

In measures 42-47 the entire ensemble plays a series of ascending six-note scales, voiced in four-part thickened line. The line begins with six eighth-notes. By applying the technique of diminution to this figure, the eighth-notes become eighth-note triplets for two measures, and then sixteenth-notes in measure 46. Finally, in measure 47, a seventh note is added to end the figure.

In the first four measures of this section Russo moves all instruments in parallel motion (minor 6-9 chords). But in measure 46, as the trumpets continue with ascending parallel minor 6 chords, the saxes and trombones move their parallel chords downward, creating a series of poly-chordal harmonies. The harmonies of these measures reinforce the G minor tonality, progressing backwards through the circle of fifths. Measure 42 begins with a Bbmin6-9 chord. Two measures later the same melodic figure is harmonized with an Fmin6-9. Another two measures finds this figure beginning with a Cmin6 chord (sub-dominant of G minor). And the double-time section concludes on an altered dominant chord (D7, with a lowered and raised ninth added), voiced loudly in the full ensemble. An alto solo leads back into the ballad tempo. The solo continues over lush sustained chords firmly placed in G minor. The trombone chords here are minor six-nine chords, voiced with stacked fourths, reminiscent of the harmon muted trumpets of the opening section.

The alto solo (and middle section) of Egdon Heath concludes abruptly with a fortissimo Dmin13 chord (voiced as a poly-chord: Dmin7 in the trombones and saxes, Cmaj9 in the high trumpets). This same chord is also found in measure 37, midway through the double-time section. In this earlier location it is the penultimate chord to a cadence. But in measure 61 this loud chord ends the middle section while also serving to begin the recap of the opening melodic statement. The fully voiced ensemble descends a fifth before giving way to the solo trombone. The trombone melody continues as in the opening section.

The minimalist background figures from the beginning return, once again entering one at a time until the pan-tonal blanket is again supporting the solo trombone. In this recap three measures are cut from the middle of the consequent phrase, the trombone arriving at the sustained D-flat sooner than in the beginning. The background figures again sustain their last notes. A seven-note C major scale is sustained, this time with an A-flat in the bass and bass trombone.

In a downbeat blindfold test in 1954 Pete Rugolo said of this composition, “I loved that little swing part in there, and there’s some very interesting brass voicing […] same type of thing that was used in Fascinating Rhythm” (Feather). It is interesting that Rugolo heard the similarities between these two seemingly different works. But it shows how Russo was able to apply the concepts of his jazz oriented arrangements to the non-jazz idioms that he was exploring. Whereas earlier works, such as Improvisation tended to divide these two worlds more distinctly, Egdon Heath seamlessly combines them.


A document of this short length can barely scratch the surface of the compositional techniques of Bill Russo. Even the two titles examined here have much more to offer the curious analyst. Russo’s music is complex and exciting. Though there are trademark devices that he utilized, each title has its own life and warrants in depth study.

In addition, the music of Russo’s post-Kenton years (which now span almost half a century) also deserves in depth study. He has composed operas, cantatas, ballets, symphonies and film scores, as well as re-writing many of the titles originally penned for Kenton. Nowhere in the long list of Kenton composer/arrangers is there anyone whose post-Kenton oeuvre is so varied.

When Russo left the Kenton organization in the mid 1950s he left behind a wealth of innovative music. This music still sounds fresh today, whether a re-composition of an old favorite or an original work of musical exploration. It would be a decade before Kenton would reach the heights of innovation and experimentation that Russo brought to the band. It could even be argued that Kenton would never again surpass this high level of innovation. But certainly, the New Concepts of Stan Kenton owe much to the forward thinking of Bill Russo.


Balleras, J. "William Russo." downbeat xlix/5 1982: 26.

Dilts, J. D.: "William Russo: Iconoclast in Orbit." downbeat 27 November 1969: 15.

Feather, Leonard. “The Blindfold Test: Rugolo Returns, Praises Russo; Duke a Puzzler.” downbeat 8 September 1954: 19.

Friedwald, Will. Liner notes to Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman and Russo Charts. Mosaic Records MD4-136, 1991.

Harris, Steven D. The Kenton Kronicles. Pasadena , California : Dynaflow Publications, 2000.

Lee, William F. Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm. Los Angeles : Creative Press, 1980.

McKinney, Jack. “The Kenton Story, Part 1.” Crescendo October 1965, 20-23.

Russo, William. “Catching up.” E-mail to Terry Vosbein. 18 October 2001 .

---. “The Division of the Orchestra Into Five Real Parts.” downbeat 23 September 1967 : 26-28, 48.

­­---. Jazz Composition and Orchestration. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1968.

­---. Personal interview by Terry Vosbein. Chicago , Illinois . 17 July 2001.

---. “Re: Tristano.” Online posting. 7 April 1998 .

---. “Re: Trumpets.” Online posting. 28 April 1998 .

---. “Writing music for SK.” Online posting. 22 June 1998 .

Sparke, Michael, and Pete Venudor. Stan Kenton: The Studio Sessions. Lake Geneva , Wisconsin : Balboa Books, 1998.

Tomkins, Lee. “In My Opinion: Bill Russo Interviewed.” Crescendo September/October 1962: 26-27.