Kenton's West Side Story
Capitol Jazz CDP 7243 8 29914 2 7 copyright 1994
Stan Kenton died in 1979. I wonder if, during the intervening decades, any brass musician has ever touched a mellophonium to his lips. This awkwardly pitched instrument, residing in the foreign territory between the trombones and trumpets that would be occupied by French Horns in other musical settings, is to the trombones what boy sopranos would be to the three tenors.
Kenton's arrangements always challenged brass players to exceed a sensible upper register for their horns. I suspect he got the good folks at the Conn Instrument company to invent the mellophoniun for him because even his crew of astounding trombonists could never play quite high enough. Unfortunately, even in it's mid-range the mellophonium's tone is too much like the sound you might expect to result from blowing through a garden hose. In the low range, it's like a trombone in insulin shock. And when it's screaming at the top of its register -- you know Kenton is going to make that happen -- it's hard not to imagine that the soprano's status is being surgically converted to permanent.
Still, in Kenton's West Side Story the mellophonium is put to good use. The entire album has a sound that is enormous and bold, without ever getting an irritating brassy edge. Even given the six trumpets and five trombones, this effect would not be possible without the mellophoniums.
Stan Kenton's musicians and Johnny Richards' arrangements take Bernstein and Sondheim's fabulous score and make from it even more than was already there. Richards starts the PROLOGUE with a unlikely but amazingly appropriate lick borrowed from the opening strains of Joachin Rodrigo's CONCIERTO DE ANRANJUEZ. From then on it's pure Bernstien, but refined and recast in the Kenton image.
MARIA begins with a Kenton piano solo that would fit perfectly in a concerto. Then, with the mellophoniums leading the brass entry, the sound becomes so lush it evokes images of someone far more voluptuous than delicate Natalie Wood. There's nobody in today's crop of size-0 actress-waifs* who could stand up to the comparison. You'd have to go back to Jayne Mansfield, or perhaps Jane Russell to find an appropriate fit.
This album is loaded with brilliant improvisations by Conte Condoli on trumpet and Gabe Baltazar on alto. Even the mellophonium gets its brief but glorious moment in the sun in the TAUNTING SCENE with Gene Roland's raucous, beautifully conceived jazz solo, immediately preceding Jack Spurlock's imitation of Kai Winding on trombone.
When West Side Story hit Broadway in 1957, nobody had ever seen anything like it, and its jazzy pop tunes laced with classical overtones opened the way for a new era in show music. From almost four decades remove, Richards' interpretation is not quite the startling revelation it was in 1961. But it's still not dated -- the ideas work, the sound is fresh, and the recording quality is faultless. Would you make that bold statement about any other recording from the early 60's?
Maybe the mellophonium wasn't such a bad idea after all.