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Listen to "Ride of the Valkyries"

from
Kenton/Wagner, by Stan Kenton
Capitol Records STAO 2217, 1964


Stan Kenton is one of my personal heroes. Like Duke Ellington, he somehow managed to keep a big band going when there was no rational business model left. Not just to keep it going, but to keep arrangers and composers writing new material and record companies to record it despite the fact that almost nobody was buying their albums.

But Stan took artistic risks the always-suave Duke was too sane to even consider. Bob Graettinger's "City of Glass" is the example Stan's fans always cite. His album with Tex Ritter--or Kenton/Wagner, the album this track comes from, are better ones. Duke would have slept on the idea and thought better of it in the morning. Stan would be halfway through the recording session by then.

Jazz and classical are hardly strangers. Heck, Duke recorded a version of "The Nutcracker Suite." But Wagner and jazz? Maybe it had a slim chance in, say, 1925, but by the time the Third Reich had finished with him, Wagner brought so much contextual baggage with him the hippest cat on Earth couldn't have made him groove. And Stan was hardly the last word in grooving. When he was first getting his band going, the standard crack was that he played dance music for people who couldn't dance.

But I celebrate Kenton's willingness to experiment. I'd argue he was a greater risk taker than acknowledged innovators like Ornette Coleman. If you look at his work through the Sixties, you find him going out on the limb at every turn. Scraping together the money to pull off the Neophonic Orchestra, redoing his classics with Pete Rugolo just to see if they worked with a vocal chorus, or covering the music from Hair: it seems there were few things he wouldn't try, if only to see if they worked.

Well, Kenton/Wagner didn't. There are bits that hold up. Certainly Kenton's powerful brass section, with people like the Candoli brothers and Bud Bribois screaming into the stratosphere, is every bit as over-the-top as the Goterdammerung spirit of the original. And while our freund Richard wouldn't have considered integrating a clave rhythm into his music, there have been worse combinations. But when the melody passes from the brass to an anemic sax/flute section, it sounds as die Valkyrie suddenly go from riding the heavens to hitch-hiking along a county road.

Still, I give Kenton credit for trying. Not every experiment succeeds. So Kenton/Wagner is something of a failure. The act of experimentation inherently propels our culture forward every bit as much as it does in science. Had someone picked up up Kenton's torch and carried it on, continuing to take risks and try out ideas good and bad, who knows what amazing sounds might be coming out of big bands now.


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