Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kenton Wagner

This is the first of two posts about how composer Richard Wagner has inspired popular music.   Jump to the other one.

A few posts back I wrote about composer Ramon Sender and his conceptual reduction of Wagner's Ring down to four quick clicks. You can read that post, Listen To Wagner's Entire Ring Cycle In One Second.   It includes my audio realization of his idea and more.

In the early sixties, about the same time that Sender was working in San Francisco, a certain Southern California composer (and famous big band leader) was working on his own personal spin to Wagner's music.

That would be Stan Kenton (1911-1973), who recorded an album entitled Kenton Wagner (sometimes called "Kenton Plays Wagner"). The subtitle is "From the Creative World of Stan Kenton Come Innovations on Great Wagnerian Themes". There are eight Kenton arrangements of famous Wagnerian moments.

According to this site by Terry Vosbein, the album was recorded during four evening sessions in September 1964, plus a solo piano session in October.  The ensemble was 5 saxes (alto, 2 tenors, bari and bass - someone doubles on piccolo), 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, piano, bass, drums, percussion - plus 5 French Horns. (How could you do Wagner without horns?)  The album itself does not credit any players, producers, engineers, copyists - no one except the guy who wrote the program notes, Noel Wedder.

Musically, I've always regarded Stan Kenton as part of the problem not part of the solution.   His arrangement style for big band, lush and brash in equal measure, came across as mostly just thick and loud in my ears.  A place where sax vibrato and screech trumpets run riot.  Apparently the Kenton style continues to be very influential in the world of big bands and higher education.

Kenton, like so many other successful popular musicians, apparently thought of himself as a serious composer.  I found this description of him here:
[Kenton] could rhapsodize, in his halting speech pattern, about musical creativity and innovation in a very erudite manner. He always referred to the band as the "orchestra" and to a song as a "composition" or a "theme," never a "tune."
The liner notes to Kenton Wagner describe a formative chance encounter with Maurice Ravel in a Chicago jazz club about 1930.  Then the period after Kenton's early success with the Artistry in Rhythm band is discussed.
Over the next ten years Stan and chief arranger Pete Rugolo became convinced that the only way to make their modern music survive was to experiment with the complex ideas of the classical school and to fuse them along new thematic and harmonic lines.
To that end Kenton created the Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra.  A boring name indeed but it did include 16 string players so the term orchestra was accurate.  His most modern offering was the 1951 album City of Glass, Stan Kenton Plays Bob Graettinger.  Graettinger composed for the Kenton band using the twelve-tone technique. That's a pretty out-there idea for 1951. The album is fascinating and curious.  And WAY ahead of its time.  Graettinger died a few years later, still in his thirties.

While my opinion of Kenton did improve somewhat when I discovered City of Glass, nothing is going to improve my opinion of the album Kenton Wagner.  It's like listening to an automobile accident - you can't stop listening and you just know nothing good is going to happen.

As expected there's a lot of bluster in the brass with occasional piano solos as contrast.  The players show almost no swing feel and get no improvised solos.  Unlike City of Glass, the musical textures are remarkably unvaried throughout.   It's as though Kenton was afraid to really mess with Wagner beyond occasionally adding a latin rhythm or updating a few harmonies.

One cut, the Wedding March, starts out with a kind of funereal drumbeat and distant muted trumpets - some musical marriages are like that, I guess.  I don't see how this album could appeal either to opera fans or jazz fans.

Of course, I'm telling you about Kenton Wagner now because Los Angeles has a mild case of Richard Wagner disease at the moment.   The L.A. Opera is holding a low-budget county-wide Wagner festival to coincide with their performances of the complete Ring.   Shamefully, it was endorsed by the County Supervisors.  This is another of my raspberry contributions to the festival.

Kenton Wagner is not in print.  LP copies seem to be selling for about $65 to $70.   (You could make me an offer for mine.)   I've made it a rule to only post my own music on Mixed Meters, but I'm making an exception of one cut from this album so you can formulate your own opinion.   (Eventually I'll delete the file.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner as arranged by Stan Kenton.   Listen to it here.   Enjoy.  In my mind this arrangement and performance can only be described as - bloodless.  Also loud.

Wagner himself would most certainly hate it.   If there is a Hell (which I personally doubt) Richard Wagner is there being forced to hear this album over and over for all eternity.   Or at least he must listen as long as the Ring of the Nibelungs lasts - whichever is longer.   It's a punishment well matched to his crimes.

Mixed Meters' three regular readers know full well that I don't like Wagner's music.  And now they also know that I don't much like Kenton's.  If I must make a choice between Wagner's original and Kenton's unoriginal I really would rather listen to Wagner.  The Kenton is that bad.

Here's a wonderful Ride of the Valkyries video.

This video is
  • NSFW (Not Safe for Work),
  • NSFCIUS (Not Safe For Children in the United States),
  • NSFPRWRMR (Not Safe For Prudish Right Wing Religious Moralist Prigs) and
  • NSFPWOTTOOW (Not Safe For People Who Object To The Objectification Of Women).
For the rest of you, prepare to watch a battalion of sexy topless female skydivers selling washing machines to Europeans to the accompaniment of Richard Wagner.  Enjoy.

Musically, I really like the cut to the jazz muzak at the very end.  It puts the Wagner bombast into proper context.

A large Stan Kenton Collection exists at the University of North Texas - but only a list of holdings appears to be online.  They also have a Bob Graettinger archive. UNT offered the first ever degree in jazz studies.  Can you guess when that was? (1947)

Kenton used a Mellophonium section in some of his bands.   A what?  Read about it here.

Here's a more positive review of the Kenton Wagner album which doesn't have many good things to say about it either.

Thanks to the pseudonymous John Marcher of the blog A Beast In The Jungle for alerting me to this Fleggaard video.

Read the Mixed Meters post Wagner Inspires Pop Music

Jazz Study Tags: . . . . . . . . .


frank-oliver said...

I totally disagree with your opinion about the Kenton/Wagner
album. I like this album very much, but I was always a fan of Kenton`s Progressive Jazz. The arrangements for a big orchestra with a lot of brass brings another light of the familiar Wagner themes. There are no Jazz improvisations on the album because it is not just another swinging the classics album.
But to say this album is like an automobile crash is not a right commentary for a music album.

mgconlan said...

I just thought I'd mention that Stan Kenton was not the first jazz, semi-jazz or pseudo-jazz bandleader to draw on Wagner. In 1928 Paul Whiteman recorded a two-sided 78 (about nine minutes) called "Grand Fantasia from Wagneriana," and he followed it up several months later with "Tchaikovskiana," both assembled and arranged by Herman Hand from themes by those composers. And BTW, though I've never heard Kenton's Wagner album I LOVE Bob Graettinger's "City of Glass" and "This Modern World." It's true they have nothing to do with jazz, but they're still great music and I'm glad Kenton recorded them.