Feb 012007

From the late 1940s until, arguably, the early 1960s, music fans in search of “serious,” academically rigorous and technically exacting music – that was not of the classical idiom – frequently turned to big band leader Stan Kenton. Kenton’s band offered everything these brainy music listeners sought: music engineered (and I choose that word very carefully) for maximum impact, a well-considered rationale for each and every composition, technically gifted soloists – really, everything the brainiac-aesthete desired.

Today, nearly 30 years after Stan Kenton’s passing, his legacy remains, taking many forms. Though the likes of Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe may have fallen into relative disfavor, modern-day Kentonites find much to enjoy in the posthumous releases of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the latest Eno album, and — if approached from the right angle — The Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Jason Falkner, Polyhonic Spree, and many more. That guy in college who rhapsodized over the animal sounds Adrian Belew could coax out of his battered Musicmaster? Kentonite. The bass player in your band, who can’t talk about Sly and the Family Stone without going off on a tangent about how Larry Graham invented “poppin'” and “slappin'”? Kentonite. The Zappa freak who’s still trying to explain why you should care about Frank’s all-synclavier album, Jazz From Hell? Kentonite, all the way.

And it’s easy to fall prey to Kentonite thinking. It makes you feel smarter than the average bear. It helps compartmentalize loose, wiggly rationalizations for liking unpopular things. In a place like Rock Town Hall, we’re expected to have reasons for liking things – and that’s why the charges of Kentonism fly so freely around these parts.

So…are you a Kentonite? Of course you are!


  12 Responses to “Kentonite”

  1. I think every good band has at least one Kentonite in the lineup. For example, Charlie Watts, George Harrison, John Paul Jones. These guys give the music the right balance of precision and emotion, balancing the anti-Kentoniteness of Keith Richards, John Lennon, and John Bonham.

    Dr. John

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    I agree, oh Dapper Doctor! Note that there’s nothing inherently *wrong* with a little Kentonism every now and then. As a musical lifestyle, though, it misses the point. Jim, for example, is entitled to don the lab coat every now and then to perform his exacting beat calculations and glockenspiel analysis — but when I sense he’s wearing the damn thing to bed every night, I feel it’s my duty to intervene. I would expect no less from him — we gotta look out for each other!

  3. general slocum

    To mention Charlie Watts here is to misunderstand Kenton, presuming his musicality, or proctomusicality, is the basis for the adjective. Watts and Harrison did tone down their respective bands, but not by reigning them in with authoritative tightness, precision, and thorough arrangement and planning. They were merely running on lower wattage than the divas of those bands, which allowed for somewhere comfortable to look when the blue light at the center of Mick’s ego began to hurt the eyes, and make the spirit squirm in its seat. Kenton was, however brazenly and obviously, an innovator. He might have started putting the fourth at the bottom of every chord simply because Varese told him to, but he did in fact employ some of the most out-there arrangement techniques of his day. He covered it with screeching horrors and ball-less loudness of horns (the sonic match to the jackets they sported in the video here!) But if you can distinguish between your ringing ears and the trumpet section’s timbre, and find the rhythm section way underneath, they were definitely swinging. So while Kenton was a control freak and had a presage of metal-head high-end compensation via trumpets, and therefore fits the procto mold, he wasn’t in any way the back seat slop-slinger Watts often has been, nor the reticent, insecure creator Harrison was. I say again, the Beatles Kentonian was McCartney! Tight, overworked arrangements all the way, never venturing out on a free-form or jamming limb, even for a middle 16, but sticking with his cute mop-top anachronistic personna almost always right through the White Album. I won’t say Revolution #9 is a better song than Rocky Raccoon, per se, though I like it better myself; but which one comes from the Kentonite pigeon-holer? And for a band almost buried beneath its Kentonite style? Queen. Even early on, when they rocked.

  4. BigSteve

    That guy in college who rhapsodized over the animal sounds Adrian Belew could coax out of his battered Musicmaster? Kentonite.

    I’ve only ever seen Belew plays Strats. Does that comment qualify as Kentonite, pince nez, or proctologist?

  5. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve wrote:

    I’ve only ever seen Belew plays Strats. Does that comment qualify as Kentonite, pince nez, or proctologist?

    I’d say pince nez.

  6. general slocum

    I didn’t rhapsodize, but I was damn impressed with his musicality live. I saw them at the Tower on that Discipline tour, the first record of the ‘new’ Crimson. Bruford also blew me away, by not being a compound signatures quirky rhythm automaton. He was in fact highly lyrical and had much of a groove, as allowed by the utter Kentonite, Fripp. But neither Belew nor Bruford were such. The rhapsodizer could well have been, but more evidence would be required. Levin? Don’t know. He always seemed like a very able and enthused hired gun to me. In Crimson, as with Peter Gabriel and others. But always adaptable.

  7. BigSteve

    Though I can appreciate artists who take that approach, I’m not a one-take kind of guy. So I think I’m a Kentonite, possibly to spite my mother, who hated Kenton. On the rare occasions when he came on tv or his name was mentioned, she would get spitting mad. She remembered him as having a swinging big band that she had fun dancing to, before he went crazy and started playing that goofy smarty-pants music.

    So of course right there I started devoting my life to all forms of goofy smarty-pants music.

  8. Re: McCartney as Kentonite–

    However, McCartney also wrote songs like “Helter Skelter.” His solo work, in particular, (I’m thinking here of Band on the Run and Ram) went down musical paths that few, if any, Kentonites would dare to tread.

    Dr. John

  9. general slocum

    Is there anything in Helter Skelter where they’re not sticking to straight 8s? True, they’ve strung a few together at the end (during the careful simulacrum of raucous anarchy), but they never fail to have the drum fills right on time, like Big Ben punctuating a limerick. Tomorrow Never Knows? THERE they actually leave that feel. But every scream in Helter Skelter is planned like a Maynard Ferguson trumpet squeal. And McCartney’s later work? Where would the most cautious duster of plastic slipcovers not dare to tread? IMO, the only thing McCartney ever “dared” was to dare the other three to stop the gravy train.

  10. Off the top of my head, I hear plenty of moments in McCartney’s solo work tha don’t feel mapped out. For example, the fuzz bass/guitar ending of “Back of My Car.” Where did that come from? Ending a carefully planned Beach Boys pastiche with a noisy outburst is not logical, but it fits the emotional trajectory of the song.

    I mean, most people accuse McCartney of not giving a crap in any solo work, and now you’re accusing him of being too serious. The guy just can’t seem to get a break.

    Dr. John

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    Kentonite definition updated with a working video of Kenton in action. Watch how he takes a perfectly nice little tune and “sophiticates” it to the point of ear-pain induction!

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