If traditions were made to be unbroken, this album would never have come about. For example, according to recent convention, only small groups record jazz versions of show scores. What's more, show scores are typically the work of composers whose primary interest is writing for the theater. And finally, the subject of a musical comedy may be serious, but the ending must be upbeat.
Yet, here's Stan Kenton's dynamic big band, recording a jazz version of a score by the eclectic Leonard Bernstein (so talented not even he knows his primary interest), for a show which ends in stark tragedy! This album does grant traditionalists one major victory, however. It convincingly demonstrates that the Kenton band continues to evolve, continues to excite.
Just as it is inherent in Stan's band, so is excitement inherent in “West Side Story,” both dramatically and musically. The plot—which is unfolded more completely below—is a modern paraphrase-with-liberties of “Romeo and Juliet.” In it, the locale is New York's West Side, the warring factions are the Jets (an " American" street gang) and the Sharks (a Puerto Rican group), and the star-crossed lovers are Tony and Maria. It was within this tense frame that the original score operated.
So asking Stan Kenton to adapt the score was only natural. Because excitement - with lyric interludes and Latin overtones- is a Kenton forte. The definitely Latin tone of the score also made it natural for Stan to ask Johnny Richards to work as arranger, since Johnny's original work, Cuban Fire Suite, has long been a successful Capitol Kenton album.
One more word is in order before the tune comments. You will be hearing an unfamiliar brass instrument in these selections. It's the mellophonium, much like a French horn and sounding between the trumpet and trombone ranges. It adds a most important element to the telling of “Kenton's West Side Story.”
PROLOGUE—Johnny Richards has done more than adapt Leonard Bernstein's concept of this number, for he's added important themes to it by drawing more fully on the score. What results is a hint-in-depth of what’s to come. The overall effect is stark tension, achieved mainly by brief brass flurries and punctuated percussion. Though real placidity is never achieved here, there's enough calm to foreshadow the lyric interludes ahead. The dramatic action involves an exciting mass dance-a mock-battle in fact-which reveals the tensions between the Jets and Sharks. At dance's end, the Jets' leader, Riff, swears to get rid of the Sharks.
SOMETHING’S COMING—The sound of uncertainty is in the air, as the band starts off at a shuffling gait. Uncertainty becomes excitement mid-way, then returns to end the piece on a hesitant note. In exciting contrast at two moments of background inertia are a pair of solos, the first by Gabe Baltazar, alto, and the second by Conte Candoli, trumpet. Also of note are the mellophoniums, which seem to be suspended ten feet above the rest of the band. Motivation for the music is Riff’s decision to challenge the Sharks at a dance that night. He asks Tony, who's drawn away from the Jets after helping to found them, to help. Tony, torn by mixed emotions, hesitates but then agrees.
MARIA—Opening with Stan's ballad piano solo, this beautiful number develops into a lyric ensemble creation, featuring Conte's tender trumpet solo, and memorable for its brilliant use of sectional interplay. Which brings up the point, apparent in each of these selections: the resources of a big band make it perhaps the definitive way to explore the jazz possibilities of a show score. Paradoxically, this haunting number corresponds to the beginning of tragedy in the drama. For at the dance Tony has met and fallen in love with Maria, who is the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo.
AMERICA—Latin percussion, finger-snapping, and the Kenton piano carry the brunt of the early bars here. When the full band does join in, it's- only to pull back quickly and sketch in behind Bob Fitzpatrick's mellow trombone solo. The same pattern is followed in turn for solos by Gabe Baltazar, Conte Candoli, and Sam Donahue, tenor. Aside from the solos, there's a generally mirthful tone, achieved mainly by some sectional honking back-and-forth. The drama behind the mirth is explained below, since this number followed Tonight in the original.
TONIGHT—Stan’s long and lazy piano intro leads eventually to mellow-toned ensemble work in this rich ballad. And at the same easy pace, Conte Candoli's trumpet weaves in and out. Once more you' re made to realize just how much a big band can do for a ballad. To catch up on the drama, Tony visits Maria and they pledge their love-Tonight. The gang, meanwhile, are meeting to plan their rumble (fight). After the meeting, the Sharks take their gins home, and three of he girls engage in a jocular discussion of the merits of life in Puerto Rico and Manhattan—America.
COOL—As the title indicates, the mood here is one of half-dreamy starkness. Finger-snapping, brief sectional figures, Stan's piano, and Gatling percussion create the mood. Mid-way, excitement pure and simple develops, but gives way finally to the half-trance. The wailing alto heard intermittently belongs to Gabe Baltazar. In the drama, Riff tells the nervous Jets to “play it cool” in anticipating the coming fight. A while later, Tony succeeds in getting everyone to agree to limit the rumble to a bare-hand fight between Riff and Bernardo.
I FEEL PRETTY—From beginning to end, this piece swings in the bright manner long expected of the Kenton band. And as a showcase for exciting solos it is outstanding. Soloists, in order, are Sam Donahue, tenor, Marvin Holladay, baritone, Conte Candoli, trumpet, and Gabe Baltazar, alto. Because the order of the next few selections has been changed from the original, the dramatic re-cap continues in Taunting Scene.
OFFICER KRUPKE—Starting off easily, the band introduces the theme it will later explore more briskly and intensely. As sectional figures cut in and out, a rhumba beat suddenly develops for a few bars. This gives way in turn to stark percussion, then full-band excitement and shrillness. Once again it's Conte Candoli delivering the trumpet solo.
TAUNTING SCENE—Called “The Rumble” originally, Johnny Richards’ adaptation is, indeed, more correctly a taunting scene. With brass bursting all around, and Latin percussion pulling from underneath, the tension mounts. A few bars' worth of lyricism, and then back to tension which, as with a real battle, is finally spent, subsiding into Stan's solemn solo finish. Gene Roland’s shrieking mellophonium, Jack Spurlock's equally strident trombone, and Gabe Baltazar's simply exciting alto are the solo instruments. At this point, most of the remainder of the story can be told. Tony attempts to break-up the rumble. Instead, switch-blades appear, and Riff is knifed by Bernardo, who is knifed in turn by Tony—Taunting Scene. Maria, unaware of the twin killing, happily prepares herself to meet Tony—I Feel Pretty. The gangs, awaiting police questions, are told by two cynical members how to deal with obtuse adults—Officer Krupke. Tony has gone to Maria, who has been told he killed her brother. Their love and grief stronger than the world around them, they cling together and imagine a prejudice-free world-Somewhere.
SOMEWHERE-FINALE—The Kenton piano begins this climactic ballad, which is strangely lyrical after the preceding violence. You will understand why Stan is so enthusiastic about the mellophonium after hearing it employed in almost poetic fashion here. The soaring quality of the music belies the tragic end of the story, Tony, hiding from the vengeful Sharks, is maliciously told that Maria is dead. Leaving his sanctuary, he reaches the very-much-alive Maria…and is killed in that instant. Their differences removed by the tragedy, the gangs join to carry off his body—Finale.
Don DeMichael. "Record Review. West Side Story." Down Beat. 4 January 1962. 28-29.
KENTON’S WEST SIDE STORY—Capitol 1609: Prologue; Something’s Coming; Maria; America; Tonight; Cool; I Feel Pretty; Officer Krupke; Taunting Scene; Somewhere—Finale.
Personnel: Kenton, piano; Ernie Bernhardt, Bud Brisebois, Conte Candoli; Bob Rolfe, Sanford Skinner, Dalton Smith, trumpets; Jim Amlotte, Bob Fitzpatrick, Jack Spurlock, Dave Wheeler, trombones; Dwight Carver, Gordon Davison, Keith Lamotte, Gene Roland, mellophonums; Gabe Baltazar, Sam Donohue, Wayne Dunstan, Marvin Holladay, Paul Renzi, saxophones; Clive Acker, tuba; Peter Chillily, bass; JerryMcKenzie, drums; George Acevedo, Latin percussion; Lou Singer, utility percussion.
I was physically exhausted each time I finished playing this album. Heavily arranged by Johnny Richards. Leonard Bernstein's score in the hands of the Kenton band loses whatever life and lightness it my have had. The15-piece brass section sits like a stone on the rhythm section, weighing it down, forcing it to pump instead or swing.
I suspect the nonswinging is due more to the interpretation of Richards’ arrangements than to the arrangements themselves. For example. there are some nice boppish brass figures on Cool. but instead of floating as such phrases should, they plod. And when the band quiets down, which is seldom, things almost swing.
Yet, on the other hand, Richards quite often has written too much into the score. Taunting Scene is a good example. Supposed to represent a “rumble,” according to the notes. I found the track nerve-shattering. But then, maybe that’s what a rumble does to bystanders.
There are short solos throughout the album. The best ones are by Candoli. Donohue is effective on Pretty, as is Spurlock on Taunting Scene, but Baltazar sort of goes off in four directions at once in his solos. Kenton is heard in a rather romantic mood on Tonight.
On the whole, this is a pretentious, overly dramatic effort. (D.DeM.)