Within progressive jazz circles, arrangers Gil Evans was well known. In the 70's Don Ellis threatened to be a household name, but died at the age of 44 in 1978.
Band Leader Stan Kenton wasn't everyone's cup of tea, his brand of jazz didn't swing heavily a good portion of the time, and as far as popular jazz critic go, that's a cardinal sin.
Perhaps Kenton's finest arranger, and one of the most swinging was very likely Johnny Richards (1911-1968). Outside of Bob Graettinger, Richards was certainly the most progressive of the Kenton arrangers. The Latin styles he championed were also swinging and perhaps masked some of their complexity.
Richards, a Mexican born immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1919 via Laredo Texas is perhaps best known for being the arranger for some of Stan Kenton's best loved records, the authentically Cuban, Cuban Fire and Kenton's West Side Story.
Richards own work is criminally underrated. Most people I talk to who have an interest in modern big band jazz, don't even know who he was.
Those who do know of him, say he's only one of Kenton's men, many preferring Bill Holman or Bill Russo anyway.
Mosaic Select #17
Thankfully Mosaic Records dedicated their 17th Mosaic Select set to Johnny Richards' leading his own band. That set was easily one of the most fulfilling sets I have ever purchased.
Mosaic turned me on to albums like Wide Range, and Experiments in Jazz, and the world music/big band vibe The Rites of Diablo. I was stunned how good these albums were. Also his three part Annotations of the Muses from 1955 is also very forward thinking, and it appears on the set.
Richards' entire discography is worth having, and if you're a vinyl record collector you can still get these titles at incredibly cheap prices. (Under 10 bucks a piece!)
Not too many people know how good this music is, big band jazz is one of the best bargains out there on vinyl period.
Don Ellis, Gil Evans, and heck, even Duke Ellington records are dirt cheap and a great way to economically start a jazz record collection. Richards music is provocative, very colorful, and usually progressive.
If you like Afro-Cuban or latin rhythms in jazz, Johnny should be on your radar. Fans of Kenton or Don Ellis will like him no doubt too.
The Rights of Diablo album was a revelation, with an orchestra augmented by 7 percussionists and the Dave Lambert Singers, the music offers up a delightful melange of Bantu ritual music and Afro-Cuban jazz fusions.
Also the sound production is very good for the late 50's, a very primitive canvas is laid by the drums, then the orchestra blasts drive the music to euphoric heights.
Check out some Johnny Richards on vinyl right here to see if they're in your price range.
Cimarron below is also a worthy track, both available on the Mosaic Select set and both appeared on the Capitol Records Wide Range originally.