If, as the liner notes to the Jazzhaus Big Bands Live release of Orchester Kurt Edelhagen suggest, the bandleader’s most ardent wish was to capture the sound of the great Stan Kenton Orchestra, there is little doubt that his wish was granted. “Artistry in Rhythm” may be missing from this selection of remastered 1954 performances from the Südwestrundfunk radio archives but there is plenty of artistry in rhythm. Not only is this a big band that has the Kenton aesthetic mastered, it is building on it, expanding the horizon.
Listening to their versions of “You Go to My Head” and “Lester Leaps In” from their December concert in Basel, one might well think he were listening to Kenton’s orchestra, but they take that sound and make it their own. This is a band filled with great musicians, but unfortunately musicians whose names—including Franz von Klenck and Helmut Reinhardt—are largely unknown here in the United States. Yet their ensemble work is spot on and their solos are as fine as anything you’d be likely to hear from an American big band. “Lester Leaps In,” the Lester Young classic, is a real eye opener. It has everything anyone could want from big band jazz—creative solos studding a dynamic arrangement. And it is just one track out of 18 on the new album.
There are a couple of fine versions of “Tuxedo Junction” and a hot, swinging take of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” featuring a lengthy solo from von Klenck. Singer Caterina Valente, who was to go on to great popular success in the States and indeed around the world, joins the band for two tunes: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Pennies From Heaven.” She does a nice little duet with trumpeter Hans Wilfert, including a little scat singing on the latter. There is a gorgeous treatment of “You Go to My Head,” again with Klenck taking a haunting lead. They show how they can swing on a tune like “On the Upbeat.”
Pianist Mary Lou Williams guests with them, working mostly with the rhythm section, for a set of five songs beginning with a hot romp through “St. Louis Blues.” This is followed by “The Man I Love” and an intensely dramatic “Yesterdays.” She concludes with two of her own compositions, “Blues On the Bongo Beat,” a piece filled with witty allusions, and “Nancy and the Colonel,” which gets some of the rest of the band involved.
The album ends with an encore of a suite by Roland Kovac, ”Alpha Jazz.” At about six minutes, it is the longest piece on the disc and a fitting climax for a band specializing in concert jazz. Jazzhaus has done it again. Orchester Kurt Edelhagen is the real goods.