Recorded some two decades ago, “A Stan Kenton Christmas” by Capitol Bones, an area “all brass” big band, is suddenly gaining traction: this unusual compact disc spent several weeks on the Roots Music Report Top 50 Holiday Chart, peaking at No. 3.
The album is based on the simply-titled Capitol release “A Merry Christmas!” by Stan Kenton and his Orchestra, recorded in 1961. The original album consists of traditional Christmas carols, played in a way that mixes traditional bells, whistling and brass band instruments with the upbeat progressive jazz idiom for which the Kenton orchestra was noted.
Deemed years ahead of his time with his wild, brassy “wall of sound,” Kenton experimented with placing the dissonance of modernist composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg into a jazz context.
The Capitol Bones band, which revels in recreating this unique flavor of music, and is named after the dominant role trombones play in the band. Recently the band performed a concert of Kenton-style music at Union Stage in Washington, D.C. What makes the band highly unusual is that the saxophone section, almost indispensable to a big band is here replaced with a mellophone section, following jazz artist Kenton’s revolutionary use of an instrument called a mellophonium.
Unfortunately, the mellophonium is a somewhat unstable instrument in terms of sound balance and is not readily available to musicians. Matt Niess, the nominal leader of the Capitol Bones aggregation, explains: “mellophones are very similar in sound, easier to manage, and very common in marching bands. They are sometimes referred to as marching French horns. We also usually have trumpet players play them because these musicians have more swing experience than most French horn players. That’s not to say that there are no French horn players who can swing. There are, and we have one in the band: Aaron Cockson. But the other three mellophones in the band are played by trumpet players.”
It is the Mellophone that helps lend the orchestra its luxuriously brassy sound. For their concert program, the Capitol Bones reached into the many traditional carols from their album (and that of the Kenton orchestra before them).
“The Holly and the Ivy,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” started slowly, not unlike a brass band playing Christmas carols on a street corner during the holiday shopping season.
Then unexpectedly, increasing in speed and volume, the songs ended with exciting crescendos. To this already unique mélange, the Capitol Bones also added some secular Christmas offerings in the Kenton style but arranged especially for the Capitol Bones, including “Christmas Time Is Here” (from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) and “My Favorite Things” (from “The Sound of Music”). A song that is definitely not in the original Kenton band book was “Blue Christmas,” played with drive and Louis Prima-style “shuffle rhythm.” Most notably, the piece featured the swinging and sliding trombone of Matt Niess.
Niess is a young man, and so I asked him how he got interested in the music of jazz bandleader Stan Kenton. After all, Kenton died in 1977, and his heyday was in the decades before that. “I grew up in a household listening to my dad’s big band and jazz music collection,” Niess said. “He was a World War II vet and loved big band jazz especially.
He liked both dance and ‘listening’ bands. He said when you went to see Glenn Miller, everyone danced, and when you went to see Stan Kenton, everyone listened.” Niess was inspired to write his own arrangements in the Kenton style. This performance and another we attended closed with the explosive Niess chart called “Big Bad Drummin’ Dude,” a jazz rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy,” interluded with “Intermission Riff,” a vibrant number from Kenton’s swing-band period of popularity during the 1940s.
Niess is currently on the faculty in the Music Department at Shenandoah University as Director of Brass Studies.
Another professor-performer, vocalist Darden Purcell of the jazz division of the Music Department at George Mason University, sang fantastic and highly interpretative versions with the band of Christmas favorites such as “Winter Wonderland” and non-Christmas pieces such as “Too Darn Hot” from the musical “Kiss Me, Kate.”
I also spoke with some of the band members during a break and expressed hopes that the band would revive some other Kenton albums, either in performance or on compact disc. I am told that this is a daunting challenge indeed, as the members of the band have conflicting commitments, schedules, and locations. I nonetheless hope for future Kenton album recreations on the Capitol Bones bandstand such as “Kenton in Hi-Fi,” “Kenton’s ‘West Side Story,’” and “Cuban Fire!”