Thursday, May 19, 2016

Si Zentner: The Thinking Man's Bandleader

Some critics have tended to perpetuate a rather common misconception about the Big Band Era—namely, that big bands virtually disappeared in the years immediately following WWII. Though it's undeniable that many orchestras had folded or at least given up touring by the late 1940s and early '50s, it's no less true that some of the best of them (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman) remained active and that several noteworthy big band albums were recorded in the '50s and '60s. Not to mention that this style of music was ubiquitous on TV variety shows, some of which, like the Dorsey Brothers Show, were actually hosted by famous bandleaders. The case of Brooklyn-born Si Zentner is a little different. As Leo Walker says in The Big Band Almanac (Zentner's is the only name listed under the letter Z in that essential reference book, by the way), "at a time when most everyone else was holding postmortems for the big bands, Si Zentner decided that someone should fight back to prove there was still life in the business" (432). And fight back he did, and at least for a few years, he was quite successful.

Zentner's orchestra was a latter-day big band if there ever was one, having been formed as late as 1957. Before that, the trombonist had worked with several name bands, including Abe Lyman, Harry James, Les Brown, and Jimmy Dorsey, and had spent some time as a studio musician at MGM. Zentner's outfit toured extensively, doing a seemingly endless series of one-nighters, until in 1959 they played the Hollywood Palladium, caught the attention of the critics—the reviews of the band in Downbeat were particularly encouraging—and for a while it appeared that Zentner and his gang were on their way to prove that there was, indeed, life in the business. They even scored a hit with their swinging reading of the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Up a Lazy River" and cut a respectable number of interesting albums for labels such as Liberty and RCA. By the mid-'60s, Zentner, who had started his band in Los Angeles, settled in Las Vegas, eventually working as musical director at the Tropicana Hotel and at some point backing Mel Torme on some of his personal appearances there. His last album for Liberty was issued in 1967, and after a long hiatus, Zentner reassembled his orchestra as late as the 1990s for live performances and occasional recordings.

Zentner, who spent most of his life championing the big band idiom and trying to prove its commercial viability, passed away from leukemia in 2000. Fortunately, several of his LPs have been reissued on CD: a couple of two-fers that collate on the one hand Suddenly It's Swing and The Swingin' Eye, and on the other, A Thinking Man's Band and Waltz in Jazz Time constitute particularly appropriate introductions to his work. On these albums the musicianship is impressive, the interplay between the different sections of the band is flawless, and the charts are intelligent and full of interesting surprises, such as the growling trumpet on "I Found a New Baby," the saxophone solo on "When a Gypsy Makes His Violin Cry," and the high-octane swinging tempo on "The Swingin' Eye." On these and other records, Zentner's music is always witty and engaging; it has aged extremely well and is thoroughly listenable all these years later. Rather than a mere footnote in the history of big band swing, Si Zentner is a fine bandleader in need of rediscovery.

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