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Music Professor’s Progressive Jazz CD Honors Stan Kenton

Washington and Lee University music professor and composer Terry Vosbein spent three months at the University of North Texas in 2007 cataloging the works of jazz bandleader Stan Kenton. As he sifted through the material, he made a happy discovery: a treasure trove of unrecorded Kenton scores that the musician composed during his most popular period, 1946 to 1948.

In addition to that surprise, Vosbein made another unexpected finding. “During 1948 there was no recording going on because of a strike with the musicians’ union, and so all this music was being written and none of it got recorded,” he says. “Brilliant stuff that nobody’s heard.”

Vosbein includes seven of these songs on his new CD, “Progressive Jazz 2009,” a rousing tribute to Kenton performed by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Vosbein composed or arranged six additional selections. He’s been a fan of Kenton’s since high school-when his father encouraged Vosbein and his brother to play hooky for a show.

“Stan Kenton was going to be doing a concert and workshop in Columbia, S.C., and we mentioned this to my dad,” says Vosbein. His father promptly organized a road trip from their home in Atlanta. “I remember my dad saying, ‘This is better than school.’ “

Kenton, one of the most popular bandleaders of the 1940s and 1950s, is remembered for his experimental composing. “Rather than being a commercial big band like Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey and some of the other bands, the goal of his band was to be innovative,” says Vosbein. His compositions are also highly dramatic. “There’s this pacing that’s bringing you on an emotional trip. And that appeals to me whether it’s in jazz or classical music,” he says. “I like the sense that there’s an emotional ride, and Kenton was the master.”

He was also a master of marketing, touting his evolving sound by regularly changing the name of his band. From Artistry in Rhythm to Innovations in Modern Music to the Neophonic Orchestra, the names encapsulate the periods. Vosbein’s CD spotlights songs composed during Kenton’s Progressive Jazz Band period. “They were still playing in lots of clubs and lots of ballrooms and things, but he tried as much as he could to book these things into concert series,” says Vosbein. Kenton moved from dance hall music to a more complex, almost artistic, sound.

Kenton often hired risk-taking composers to arrange his music. Two of them, Pete Rugolo and Bob Graettinger, arranged the Kenton pieces on “Progressive Jazz 2009.” “Kenton’s band was not a concert band before Rugolo came along,” says Vosbein. “And Bob Graettinger really pushed it even further away from jazz and into experimental.”

Infused with the Kenton sounds he’d cataloged at North Texas, Vosbein composed his original pieces during a seven-month stint in Europe. “I would record [them] back into the computer and put on my iPhone and walk around the streets of Paris or Copenhagen with those headphones, listening to what I’d written that day or night,” he says. His song titles-from “Crows in Tuxedos” to “Jumping Monkey”-were inspired by images and stories that caught his attention abroad.

Working within the original 20-musician, concert-band framework-five saxophones, five trumpets, five trombones and a five-piece rhythm section-Vosbein and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra then put their own energizing spin on Kenton’s progressive sound.

Reviewers like what they hear: “Composer/arranger/conductor Terry Vosbein has reinvigorated a number of heretofore overlooked themes from the creative world of Stan Kenton, added several of his own, and placed them in the capable hands of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra for a concert performance that shines from start to finish,” writes Jack Bowers at www.allaboutjazz.com. The Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer calls the CD “a masterful and emotionally rewarding tribute.”

“Progressive Jazz 2009” is available at www.maxfrankmusic.com.

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L