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"Kansas City" Soundtrack, Verve : *** VARIOUS PERFORMERS
"The Real Kansas City of the '20s, '30s and '40s",
Sony Columbia

Album Spotlight

May 05, 1996|Don Heckman

Kansas City, in the '20s and '30s, was one of the legendary hotbeds of jazz, the staging area for influential big bands led by Bennie Moten, Alphonse Trent, Andy Kirk, Jay McShann and, above all, Count Basie.

The music scene in Kansas City was energized by the fact that from 1928 to 1939 the city was virtually wide open, undaunted by Prohibition or the Depression, its speak-easies, bars and honky-tonks flourishing under the control of the powerful Pendergast political machine. The continual demand for roaring, blues-based, swinging jazz resulted in the emergence of a remarkable wave of new players, among them Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker.

It's no wonder, therefore, that Robert Altman chose to frame his new period film, "Kansas City" (it is scheduled to arrive in August) in a colorful jazz setting, using such talented young lions as saxophonists James Carter and Joshua Redman to portray Hall of Famers Webster and Young.

The problem faced by any such project, of course, is whether to attempt note-for-note reproductions of original music or whether to use the originals as springboards from which young players can leap into their own creative interpretations. Altman, fortunately, chose the latter. And the irresistibly swinging soundtrack confirms the wisdom of his decision.

The selections range from early classics--"Moten Swing," "Queer Notions" and "Froggy Bottom"--to ballad renderings of "I Surrender Dear" and "Lullaby of the Leaves." Carter's occasionally over-the-top soloing dominates many of the tracks, but the music's essential appeal lies in the ensemble passages, in the spirited manner in which the dormant but still vital energies of the Kansas City swing style are brought to life by players a generation or more removed from the era.

'The Real Kansas City of the '20s, '30s and '40s," a collection of reissued tracks, was no doubt issued to coattail onto the Altman film. But, in fact, it is a superb collection in its own right, with a wide array of performances from bands led by Moten and Basie, as well as Walter Page, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk and Mary Lou Williams.

Among the many intriguing tracks are Kirk's "Lotta Sax Appeal," Williams' "Little Joe From Chicago," a pair of boogie-woogie performances by fast-fingered Pete Johnson and an astonishing (no other word can describe it) solo by a very young Charlie Parker performing with the Jay McShann orchestra on "Swingmatism."

In addition, the album provides an opportunity to compare original versions of "Queer Notions," "I Left My Baby" and "Moten Swing" with the soundtrack interpretations. Interestingly, the film readings are almost all done slower than the originals--notably so in the case of Henderson's quirkily harmonized "Queer Notions." But both new and old versions hold up well, with the possible exception of "I Left My Baby," in which the dark, mournful tone of the original is considerably more emotionally penetrating than the upbeat contemporary rendering.

Both albums, however, are well worth hearing--intriguing perspectives on one of the most vigorous periods in the history of jazz.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended), four stars (excellent).

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