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It is always exciting for me to see a big band in person. On November 16, the James L. Dean Big Band brought some thrilling music to Tierney's Tavern in Montclair. The entire evening was devoted to the music of Stan Kenton and Boyd Raeburn. The Kenton band enjoyed a long existence, and there are still frequent opportunities to hear bands perform his music. The Dean outfit executed the Kenton pieces well, but it is the Raeburn numbers on which I shall linger awhile.
Raeburn started out in the 30's with a society band, eventually moved in the direction of swing, and in 1944 established one of the most innovative of the modern bands. Despite critical acclaim, commercial success eluded Raeburn, and by 1948 he decided to leave the music business. The primary arrangers for his great band of the 40's were Ed Finkel and Ralph Flanagan at the outset, George Handy for about two years, and Johnnie Richards later on. While all of these cats had a modern bent, it was the Handy charts which attracted the most attention.
Handy's arrangements could be described as "Stan Kenton meets Sauter-
Finegan." He incorporated many unusual approaches to big band jazz, creating
sounds unlike anything that had been heard before. They were an amalgam
of be-bop, modern classical and his own slightly off kilter view of how
to expand the tonal horizons of the music. Dean featured over a dozen of
the Raeburn pieces, with the band handling the challenging charts with
high marks. Many of the originals played by the Raeburn band incorporated
the leader's first name in the title, usually as a pun. Included in the
Dean program were "Early Boyd," "Boyd's Nest," and "Here Come the Boyds."
It was a gas to hear these arrangements live, a rarity indeed. The Dean
band continues to grow and improve with each performance. Spanky Davis
was, as always, outstanding on trumpet, Dean played a fiery tenor sax,
Phil Jones and Ben Williams kicked in with some fine trombone solos, and
Chuck D'Orazio's flugelhorn and Josh Rubin's guitar contributions were
most welcome, while Ray Vansco on lead trumpet and Steve Holloway on drums
anchored the band. Playing this music well is an accomplishment, but making
it come alive, as the Dean band did, made it truly special.