Stan Kenton – A Merry Christmas! 8.0

Reviewed by on 3rd December, 2015

Stan Kenton – A Merry ChristmasStan Kenton was not just one of the biggest big band leaders in jazz history. In a particular way, he was pretty much the biggest – that is, in terms of band size. At his absolute height, in the early fifties, he had no less than 39 band members, in his famed Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra. But even in the sixties, his last great period, Stan Kenton’s band was huge, and full of unusual touches – not least the infamous mellophoniums, unstable straight french horns, that provided a particular loud and sharp brass sound to complement his grand ambitions.

Because those ambitions were great indeed. Stan Kenton truly believed he was making music that would meld the sophistication of classical art music with the verve and rhythmic dynamics of jazz. That makes this instrumental album, though equally quickly recorded, a different beast altogether from those of, say, Ray Conniff. The sound is huge, dynamic, growing, not contained. Humorously and intellectually contrapuntal melody lines run across and against each other like in the most intricate fugues. Stan Kenton’s band has a definite pop sensibility – it’s all eminently hummable – but there’s a grandeur here that’s fantastically compelling.

Is this, then, the most ambitious Christmas album undertaking of all time? In arrangement sophistication, perhaps so, but to Stan Kenton it was likely all in a day’s work. And yet, when listening to the highlights – like the enormously swelling version of “We Three Kings” or the massive bass-and-brass-fest of “Good King Wencelas” – it’s work we should all be greatly thankful for.

The album linked has two bonus tracks that are not part of the original recording and don’t really fit the style. Feel free to ignore them.

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Orchestral jazz meld of the highest order

Few intrumental albums – hell, few of any kind of albums – are as inventive and grand as this. Although it runs out of steam a bit at the end, for the Christmas season, it may be just what the doctor ordered.

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