On November 2, 1961, the musical-comedy Kean arrived at The Broadway Theatre on Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Streets in the wake of positive reviews. The show's book centered on the salacious life of 18th century Shakespearean actor Sir Edmund Kean, and Robert Wright and George Forrest wrote the words and music. But before Kean made it to Broadway, it opened on the road in Boston and Philadelphia, which is where Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews caught the musical.
With the huge success of jazz interpretations of My Fair Lady in preceding years—versions by Andre Previn, Oscar Peterson and Billy Taylor are just a few—Orrin saw an opportunity. Here was another English-themed musical with a catchy score that would lend itself neatly to a band sound. Just to be sure, Orrin traveled to Philadelphia to catch the show for himself. He was pleased.
The next step was to assemble Riverside artists for a simple, swinging rendition of Kean's soulful songs. On the band were Blue Mitchell (tp), Clark Terry (tp,flgh) [pictured] (with trumpeter Ernie Royal replacing Terry on the second date), Melba Liston (tb), Julius Watkins (fhr), George Dorsey (as), Jimmy Heath (ts), Arthur "Babe" Clarke (bar), Bobby Timmons (p), Ron Carter (b) and Albert "Tootie" Heath (d), with Ernie Wilkins conducting.
Three arrangers—Heath, Wilkins and Liston—were given the task of adapting eight Kean songs, and the featured soloists were Mitchell, Heath and Timmons.
The result was A Jazz Version of Kean, recorded by Keepnews [pictured] on October 31 and November 1—a day before the musical opened in New York. While the show lasted 92 performances, it is largely unknown today, buried by a much stronger wave of musical-comedies that would follow in the coming seasons, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Stop the World I Want to Get Off! (1962) and Oliver! (1963)
Nevertheless, A Jazz Version of Kean is a standout on so many levels. The solos are lyrical and persuasive, the arrangements swing just right, and the treatments of the melodic songs themselves are majestic without being literal. And unlike My Fair Lady and so many Broadway albums by jazz artists, you probably don't know any of the Kean songs, which means all of this will be fresh and free of clichés.
Jimmy Heath [pictured above] arranged Sweet Dancer, To Look Upon My Love and Elena. Each is superb, serving as a reminder of how terrific Jimmy is as an orchestrator. Wilkins arranged Chime In, The Fog and the Grog and Inevitable. And Melba Liston scored Penny Plain and Willow, Willow, Willow.
The album was never released on CD, though, with any luck the kind folks at Concord will re-issue it after reading this post.