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This feature first posted to the blog in September, 2008 and I am reprising it to correct a number of mistakes and technical flaws and to add a 9 video playlist at the end of this re-posting to give you a number of perspectives on Stan's music.
The first time I met Stan Kenton was in 1959 when I was in a big band that played the Hollywood Palladium as part of an annual series of fund-raiser concerts sponsored by Musicians’ Union, Local 47 in an effort to raise money to support its continuing grants-in-aid programs.
I had just stepped down off a stage riser, and before disassembling my drum kit, I decided to have a smoke which I was in the process of lighting when I heard this booming baritone voice say from behind me: “Hey, kid, you play good; can I bum one of those?”
When I turned around, I thought that the distinguished looking, gray-haired man in the perfectly tailored gray suit had stepped right out of a “Stan Kenton Capitol LP” album cover. I gave him a cigarette, lit it for him, and we exchanged some pleasantries during which I tried not to make a total fool of myself.
He finished the smoke, excused himself and went over to join his band manager as his orchestra was up next.
Ironically, the lead alto, lead trombone and jazz trumpet chair in the band I performed with that afternoon at the Palladium were occupied by Ray Reed, Dick Shearer and Warren Gale, respectively, all of whom would go on to assume similar chairs with Stan’s orchestra later in the decade of the 1960’s.
I think that brass players and drummers have always had a particular fascination with Stan’s music. Kenton’s preferences in Jazz always seemed to emphasized power, volume and strength and these elements can all be characteristic of playing brass and percussion instruments. It also seems to me that these tendencies are particularly welcomed and reinforced by those brass and percussion players who are young [although I still find the power and majesty of Stan’s music appealing today during an age that I would be hard-pressed to describe as “youthful”].
Stan Kenton’s music has been the subject of a continuing controversy, both pro and con, but mostly “con.” I could care less as I just love the stuff, although I must admit to not listening to much of it from the band’s rock-infused period, which I always thought was the beginning of Stan’s losing his way. This attempt by Stan to blend in with the “flavor of the times” seemed to gather momentum just after the 1971 appearance by the band at the Newport Jazz festival.
The controversy about the Kenton Orchestra is neatly summarized by Ted Gioia in his West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-60 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 144-45; paragraphing modified]:
“The emerging consensus … is that the Kenton output was, as a whole, neither as terrible as its critics insisted nor as celestial as its devotees pretended. At times, of course, it could be either of the extremes, but the plain truth about the Kenton orchestra was that it was so much else as well. One should speak of the ‘Kenton sound’ only with trepidation; it is better to refer to the Kenton ‘sounds.’ …
The band’s range of expression was, in fact, nothing short of awe-inspiring. There may have been better big bands, certainly there were more consistently excellent big bands, but for sheer expressiveness, none could match the Kenton ensemble of the postwar years.”
Perhaps, because of the controversy linked to it, and many other factors usually associated with a pervasive form of Jazz criticism that is negative for the sake of being negative, not a great deal of attention is paid to the Stan Kenton Orchestra these days.
In a small effort to rectify that, the editorial staff of JazzProfiles thought a retrospective of the band spanning three decades of its appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival [NJF] might be well-received by those readers who enjoy the band and those who may be new to its music.
An excellent place to start would be with the insert notes from two recordings that document the orchestra’s appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Chronologically, it might be more appropriate to begin with Bob Gordon’s insert notes to the 1957 appearance by the band contained in Stan Kenton Orchestra: Stompin’ at Newport [Pablo PACD-5312-2], but we will start with those that Tony Cox wrote for the Jasmine Records NJF retrospective – The Stan Kenton Orchestra, Live at Newport 1959-1963-1971 [Jasbox 1-3] because Tony’s narrative also does an excellent job of providing a brief history of the festival in all its manifestations.
Bob is also the author of the comprehensive and well-written book Jazz West Coast which we have featured wholly or in part [per chapter] on these pages.
“The Newport Jazz Festival was always something of a paradox. It was not the first jazz festival, it was not always the biggest jazz festival, nor was it necessarily the most star-studded jazz festival. Sometimes it was held at locations other than Newport (including a mountain top near Tokyo) and sometimes the music presented was not even jazz. Despite all that, indisputably Newport was THE jazz festival.
Stan Kenton's association with the Festival began at the very beginning. It was early in 1954 that wealthy Newport residents, Louis and Elaine Lorillard, began wondering whether a jazz festival would be feasible. A tad nervously, two days in July were set aside and, with the Lorillards' backing, the operator of Boston's Storyville Club, pianist George Weir, was named director of the Festival. A temporary stage was set up in the grounds of the Newport Casino, musicians were booked and Stan Kenton accepted an invitation as principal Master of Ceremonies.
The Lorillards need not have worried. July came and some 13,000 jazz buffs invaded Newport population then only 35,000. The Newport Jazz Festival - mission statement: "to encourage America's enjoyment of jazz and to sponsor the study of our country's only original art form" - was under way. Food was in short supply and if accommodation was a problem, which mostly it was, somehow it didn't seem to matter: they slept anywhere - in cars or in trucks or on the beach. What did matter was that Narragansett beer was on sale under blue-and-white striped awnings and, above all, the jazz was great. The musicians blew and the audiences cheered; even a downpour on the second day did little to dampen the enthusiasm. The first N.J.F was a resounding success and, in George Wein's words, "This is just a beginning - these two nights were only part of my dream." An important new date had been permanently inked into the jazz calendar.
From that time on, whenever the subject of jazz festivals came up, somehow Newport would be the first name to spring to mind. Record labels taped their artists at Newport, radio stations broadcast the Newport concerts, either live for Stateside listeners and or recorded, via the Voice of America, for the rest of the world. Films were shot there - remember "Jazz On A Summer's Day'? - and, once in a while, jazz history was made there, as witness Duke Ellington's renascence following his barn-storming late night performance of "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue" at the 1956 Festival. Without a doubt, Newport was where it happened.
At the time of the first N.J.F there was no Stan Kenton orchestra. Stan himself was vacationing in Los Angeles and supervising recordings for the new KENTON PRESENTS JAZZ label. No doubt his Festival ‘emceeing' was effective - Stan was rarely lost for words - but the only Kenton music to be heard was his piano on "I Got Rhythm" in a midnight jam session. However, the absence of a Kenton orchestra at that first Newport would be remedied many times over the years and it is his sets from the Festivals of 1959, 1963 and 1971 (recordings that have never before been released) that JASMINE Records are proud to present in this three-CD set.
As the 1959 Festival began there was confusion behind the scenes - the management was embroiled in three major lawsuits. However, the musical menu included, among others, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, John Dankworth, the MJQ, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck and the Four Freshmen, as well as Stan Kenton, so as far as the audiences were concerned the legal hassles were strictly for the birds. During those four days of beautiful summer weather, they were there for the music.
Kenton's set opened that Sunday evening in Freebody Park with two contrasting Bill Holman swingers; the contrapuntal "Theme And Variations" - ensemble all the way - and "Kingfish " (named for the famous Amos 'n Andy character) which bristled with fine solos. Both numbers were familiar to Kenton buffs from the 1954 "Showcase" LP, although the four staccato chords with which the recording of "Kingfish " had opened had by this time been dropped. Having had nearly ten minutes of swinging mightily, the musicians were probably glad of the breather afforded by the leader's rhapsodic piano variations before he led them into a full-blooded performance of the theme that more than any other will forever mean Stan Kenton, 'Artistry In Rhythm.” Marty Paich's powerful "The Big Chase " followed, another opportunity for most of the jazz soloists to show their form, after which Stan invited Charlie Mariano to step into the spotlight.
The first piece chosen to feature the star altoist was Bill Holman's 1955 arrangement of Victor Young's beautiful "Stella By Starlight", from the 1945 film "The Uninvited". In Holman's words: "That was for my man Charlie Mariano. I wanted to write something nice so I came up with this intro that became sort of famous. I loved what he did with it." Naturally, Mariano was completely at home and, despite the swinging middle section, his reading of Holman's writing brilliantly sustained the overall dark mood of the score. Vintage Kenton, this, and a delightful contrast to Gene Roland's light-hearted approach to Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me" which followed, with Charlie's articulate alto swinging all the way home. Next up was "Intermission Riff", a mainstay of the Kenton book since 1946; and if the men in the orchestra sometimes got tired of playing it, - well, nothing of that showed through in this spirited performance.
1946 was also the year in which Kenton had first pioneered the blending of big band jazz with Latin musical elements and the first of two such pieces in the Newport program came next - Gene Roland's carefree "Mexican Jumping Bean", which was to be recorded for the "Viva Kenton!" album a few weeks later This performance is particularly notable for the sparkling interplay between drummer Jimmy Campbell and Mike Pacheco on timbales, developing an almost conversational rapport between the two men. Nearly forty years later, when speaking of his Kenton days, Pacheco was to recall: "There were many drummers, the best one was Jimmy Campbell." "My Old Flame" which follows dates back to 1934 and the Mae West film "Belle Of The Nineties", which featured Duke Ellington. Marty Paich's unrelenting design captures the sad mood of the song, with Bill Trujillo's tenor sax and Rolf Ericsson's trumpet effectively portraying a sense of regret for things lost.
The evening's finale was "La Suerte De Los Tontos", one of the six movements of Johnny Richards' 1956 magnum opus, "Cuban Fire!". At the time of its composition Stan Kenton had said: "We've experimented with Latin instruments and instrumentals in the past and sometimes we've misused them. This music is authentic. We've made sure here."
In his search for the real thing, Richards visited weddings, dances, festivals and immersed himself in every aspect of the burgeoning Latin-American musical scene that was such a feature of New York City of the period. This virtuoso Newport performance of "La Suette De Los Tontos" ("The Fortune of Fools'), differs from the familiar recording in two ways: there are no French horns but, as compensation, there is a piano solo that was not part of the original recording. The haunting nanigo rhythm and spirited brass vividly convey a sense of celebration and dance that brought Stan Kenton's 1959 Newport set to a fitting climax. After the orchestra had filed off the stage to make room for the Dave Brubeck quartet, Stan himself, perhaps in an effort to combat some inevitable sense of anti-climax, settled himself on the steps beside Brubeck's piano, listening intently.
Four years later America's smallest state again welcomed America's biggest jazz outfit and it is the Stan Kenton orchestra's set from the 1963 N.J.F. that makes up the second of these CDs. By this time Stan had added a four-man mellophonium section and a singer, so it was twenty-two men and a woman who took the stage in Freebody Park towards the end of the Festival's first evening. It was Independence Day, and it was up to Stan to provide some musical fireworks, so the orchestra led straight off with a sparkling "Waltz Of The Prophets", with soloists Gabe Baltazar and Jiggs Whigham fully meeting the demands of Dee Barton's challenging composition. The mandatory 'Artistry In Rhythm" followed, the well-loved and familiar arrangement enhanced by the mellophonium sound before the orchestra revisited Dee Barton's music, this time the intriguing "Turtle Talk", again spotlighting the improvising talents of Baltazar and Whigham.
As Jiggs made his way back to the lead trombone chair, Stan had Gabe stay centre stage for "Stairway To The Stars", in which the altoist's playing ranged from warm and graceful to swinging like mad. Bill Holman's arrangement provided a near-perfect frame for Hawaiian-born Baltazar's fluent improvisation - if a touch Parker-ish in places, none the worse for that, and his own man from start to finish. A new slant on "Intermission Riff "followed, unusual in that the only soloists featured were Stan himself and bass player John Worster. Worster, whose sterling playing was apparent throughout the concert, shows himself to be both an inventive improviser and a fine time-keeper.
Back from Japan just for the Festival was Kenton alumnus Charlie Mariano, who joined forces with his old boss for two features, "My Funny Valentine" and "Stompin' At The Savoy", Bill Holman arrangements which gave the altoist ample space for his fertile imagination to stretch out. Seemingly without effort, Charlie imposed his highly distinctive stamp on the performances – prime Mariano all the way.
And there was yet more alto to come, as Stan invited Cannonball Adderley to join Charlie on stage (Cannonball's sextet had played one of the evening's earlier sets) and motioned Gabe Baltazar to join them at the solo mike. The music chosen to feature the three altos was an extended version of Gene Roland's slow tempo blues mood "The Blues Story" ' Kick-started by Stan's blues-style piano (a style of playing at which, for my money, he excelled but for which he never received much credit) and Jiggs Whigham's plangent trombone, a solid foundation was laid down against which each soloist recounted his own tales of the blues, each in his own personal way until, some eight minutes later, the end of the story was written by the full might of the Kenton brass. All three men rose magnificently to the occasion, producing solos which were modern in concept but which had their roots way back in jazz history.
After the story came the songs - by Jean Turner, who had been part of the Kenton organization for a little over a year. The four items she offered to the Newport audience that night were all, as it were, being broken in for a recording session scheduled for a couple of months later. In addition to Jean's fine singing, notable here are the lazy Latin beat of "Sleepy Lagoon" and the sensitive Lennie Niehaus arrangement of the moody Ellington ballad "Day Dream", to which Jean responded quite beautifully.
Sounding as fresh and enthusiastic as if they were playing the first number of the evening, not the last, the Kenton orchestra came up with a lusty, 'follow that' performance of "Malaguena" to close the set. Bill Holman's bravura arrangement of the familiar Ernesto Lecuona song and the excitement it generated must have sent the audience away into the warm July night fully satisfied, their ears still happily ringing with the famous Kenton wall of sound. Stan mentioned in his introduction that the album "Adventures In Jazz", which included "Malaguena", had won a Grammy award; after hearing this performance it is easy to see why. Burt Goldblatt, in his fine book Newport Jazz Festival, says of the evening: "Stan Kenton appeared with one of the best-sounding bands he had ever put together." No argument.
The first-ever N.J.F. had been Stan-sans-orchestra; in 1971 the wheel had turned full circle - it was the Kenton orchestra without Stan. A few weeks later, Stan was to write: "The current band has been together for nearly a year and a half with only a few personnel changes. As a result, the band is very close - both in sound and in personal involvement. The high regard each musician has for the other was never more in evidence than during my recent hospitalization. The band was conducted by Dick Shearer and Mike Vax and never missed an engagement during the four months of my absence, including a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was a remarkable display ... I am grateful to them." When it was put to Stan that this was a tribute to his personal leadership qualities he, typically, said: "I thank you for that. I think it's a tribute to them." So it was that on the third of these CDs George Wein sets the scene for Mike Vax's introduction of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
In contrast to Stan's 1959 and 1963 N.J.F. performances, both of which had opened with swingers, the 1971 set began slowly, with Johnny Richards' lyrical arrangement of the haunting "Maria" from "West Side Story" - incidentally, Stan's other Grammy-winning album. Richards' original orchestration had included the mellophonium section but sadly, by 1971, these horns were a thing of the past. Despite this, the revised score heard here brilliantly captures the poignancy of Leonard Bernstein's beautiful ballad, not least owing to the rich-toned trombone of Dick Shearer, who fully justifies his place in the roster of great Kenton lead trombonists.
Shouting brass and a driving rhythm section punctuate Quin Davis's punchy alto and Gary Pack's articulate trumpet work in "Hank's Opener", one of Hank Levy's most successful forays into the realms of unusual time signatures and very much jazz of the seventies. Some years later, in an interview for Dr. William Lee's biography Stan Kenton –Artistry in Rhythm, Hank was to recall: "Those odd meters are hard to get into every time I came near the band the guys would cringe. Here comes Levy - and that means rehearsal, a new time chart or two, disastrous confusion! After about five years of this, Stan put his arm around me one day and said: 'You finally got them on your side.' But, believe me, it was only through his efforts." Willie Maiden's imaginative design on the "Theme From 'Love Story"' which followed is a rare chance to hear a pianist other than Stan soloing with the Kenton Orchestra. Claude Sifferlin acquitted himself well, not least when supporting Quin Davis's extended improvisation with some un-Kentonian but highly effective chording.
The highlight of the evening's concert was a performance of Ken Hanna's program music "Macumba Suite", a work which was, and which remains, far from being 'easy listening'. The fact that it was in the Kenton book, and was presented publicly on a number of occasions, says much about Stan's musical credo - and his courage. It is challenging, dissonant, disturbing and, at first hearing, inaccessible; above all, it quite clearly goes well beyond what would then, or even now, be regarded as jazz norms. However, Stan had faith in Hanna's personal creative vision and integrity and that, for him, was enough. Although the Newport audience was essentially made up of jazz lovers, Mike Vax felt no need to apologize for this performance; just a few useful words of explanation, then straight into the music. Some twenty years on, I had the good fortune to discuss "Macumba "with Richard Torres and Dennis Noday; both still believed that this was important music. After the torrid moods of the "Macumba Suite", Bill Holman's flag-waving "Malaga" effectively cleared the air, giving free rein to the solo talents of Jamieson, Torres, Noday, Von Ohlen and Lopez, and storming the Kenton Orchestra's set to a close, clearly delighting the crowd in the Festival Field that night.
Sadly, within twenty-four hours, the 1971 Festival came to an abrupt and premature end in a welter of screaming, smashing wood and teargas canisters. It was not the first riot in N.J.F. history, and probably few Festival-goers realized that it would be the last straw, but the sad fact was that the Festival was no longer welcome at the Rhode Island resort. The next N.J.F. would be staged in New York City, so it was farewell to the salty Atlantic sea breezes and the seagulls' screeches and welcome to petrol fumes and the wail of police sirens echoing through Manhattan's canyons of steel.
There have always been those who questioned Stan Kenton's jazz credentials. A review of his 1959 Newport appearance conceded, a touch grudgingly, that: "There is a place for Kenton in jazz, if only as an example of the many directions in which this music can wander." A similar point was made, more generously, by Voice Of America commentator Willis Conover, who said that Kenton had "expanded the dynamic horizons of American music". Kenton himself, in a 1963 BBC radio interview, said: "I will no longer argue with people as to whether it is jazz or not. We use jazz constantly - there are many improvised solos throughout the arrangements - and I also believe that jazz music for big bands can be written, but I'm truly not concerned any more whether people think it's jazz or not. I'm extremely concerned with what they feel about the music."
He need not have worried. Jazz or not, enough people cared to enable him to pursue his dream and continue as a creative musician until ill-health finally forced him off the road fifteen years later
By chance, the day on which I am completing this note marks the twentieth anniversary of Stan Kenton's death and yet, during the last decade, more of his recordings than ever before have come onto the market. As the Twentieth Century - Kenton's century - draws to a close, there can be no doubt that there are still many people for whom the music that Stan Kenton caused to happen was important and who, by their love of that music, will keep it alive.
Tony Cox, 25th August, 1999.”
“We Jazz fans are, by and large, a patient lot. We have to be. As I've noted elsewhere, jazz recordings go in and out of print with breathtaking regularity. A favorite recording might be found in the record or CD bins for an all too brief month or two and then vanish without a trace. Worse, some recordings that are "known" to have occurred have the discouraging habit of not being issued for years or perhaps even decades... if ever. By now most of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that the long-rumored Buddy Bolden cylinder recording will never be recovered -assuming of course that it ever existed in the first place. But from time to time we're pleasantly surprised to find our hopes and dreams really have been answered. The Dean Benedetti wire recordings of Bird in flight did prove to be fact, not fantasy, and were finally (a half century after the fact!) made available to the general public. The CD revolution has helped, as out-of-print LPs get reissued on the new media after years of obscurity. So if any of us harbor hopes that a cherished album will be reissued, or that a concert that we suspect "had to have been recorded" will at last be made available, chances are that sometime - not necessarily anytime soon, mind you - our wishes have a chance of coming true.
Which leads us to the CD you hold in your hand. In 1957, Norman Granz was
approached by the Lorillard family (sponsors of the Newport Jazz Festival) to run that year's event. Granz agreed, subject to the proviso that he would be in charge of all recording and that he would release on his own Verve label only material recorded by artists already signed to that label. Apart from the obvious business advantages of such an arrangement, Granz was truly concerned that the pace of the program would be slowed down if various other labels, each with their own engineers and recording equipment, went through the preliminaries necessary to recording their artists. As a result, while Verve artists such as Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald were well represented by albums taped at the concert, other artists represented by companies such as Columbia, Capitol, and Blue Note were not so fortunate.
Eric Miller, currently a tireless producer and researcher at Fantasy, Inc., first came across tapes of material recorded by some of these other artists at the 1957 Newport Festival while working as an assistant to Norman Granz some 30 years ago. He wondered at the time why other labels didn't approach Granz to buy the rights to issue their artists' music. Recently, Fantasy made arrangements with EMI (parent company of Capitol Records) to bring to the jazz public the marvelous concert by the Stan Kenton band recorded at the 1957 festival.
But first, a disclaimer. Lest I be accused of preaching to the choir, let me note that much of what follows will be old hat to the legions of Kenton fans who have long been anticipating the release of these recordings and who no doubt know the tunes, arrangements, and soloists by heart. For those of you who haven't followed the Kenton band's progress over the years in such detail, however, the following comments might help with your enjoyment of the album.
The band opens (appropriately enough) with Bill Holman's chart "The Opener," which had been in the book since 1954. Kent Larsen takes the first solo on valve trombone (he solos on slide trombone on all other occasions), followed by Lennie Niehaus on alto sax and Sam Noto on trumpet. "Artistry in Rhythm" is next, and drummer Jerry McKenzie is helped along with Latin rhythm instruments played by various other members of the band. Not that he needs much help. McKenzie, who had recently joined the band when another drummer failed to work out, boots the band along on this and the other numbers in a commanding manner.
The next two selections, both Holman arrangements, had first been introduced to the public on Kenton's Contemporary Concepts album, arguably one of his finest albums.
"Stompin' at the Savoy" features solos by Stan, Sam Noto, and Bill Perkins on tenor sax. Perk was - at the time - deeply under the spell of Lester Young, and from his opening phrase, a flurry of alternate fingerings, it shows. The next number, "Yesterdays," is all Bill Perkins, who spins a nostalgic story backed by Holman's beautiful yet moody arrangement. The climax of the chart features lead trumpeter Ed Leddy soaring to a high concert F, a moment that never fails to bring chills to this listener.
Next comes "Intermission Riff," de rigueur at a Kenton concert, which swings throughout and has meaty solos by Perkins and Kent Larsen. Another oldie, Bill Russo's "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West" celebrates the rhythms of Cuba. (The title pinpoints the map coordinates of Havana.) Kent Larsen and Lennie Niehaus solo over a fascinating background of pulsating riffs.
Sam Noto's featured number is "Everything Happens to Me," and the Matt Dennis standard (and Bill Holman arrangement) is beautifully rendered. Noto must have just gotten seated when he and the rest of the trumpet section were given a taxing workout on "The Peanut Vendor," another warhorse of the Kenton book. Kent Larsen and Stan Kenton himself solo, but the real star of the arrangement is the band itself, as the various sections build pyramid style to a climax. To calm things down, the following number is a ballad vehicle: Lennie Niehaus soloing on his own arrangement of "The End of a Love Affair."
Gerry Mulligan's "Young Blood" gets a swinging and respectful treatment, with solos by Noto, Perkins, and Larsen, followed by Johnny Richards's "La Suerte de Los Tontos" (Fortune of Fools), which had been featured on the album Cuban Fire! Lennie Niehaus and Sam Noto take appropriately fiery solos. The concert comes to a fitting climax with a Marty Paich original, "The Big Chase." (Sans, however, the drum chase that would become an integral feature of the number.) The arrangement features a near traditional cannon, with the saxes first stating the theme, followed by the trombones and then trumpets. Perkins, Noto, Niehaus, and Larsen all solo.
This release is indeed welcome. Most of Kenton's landmark Capitol albums have already been reissued on CD, albeit some only in completist boxed sets designed for the avid collector. There have also been many bootleg releases of the Kenton band made available, recorded surreptitiously at various venues over the years, and most betray their origins immediately through miserable fidelity. (And let's face it, not all editions of the Kenton band were equally good; some aggregations were more equal than others.).
This album, on the other hand, is the real thing. It features a first rate edition of the band, complete with superior soloists and playing before an appreciative audience, and the whole has been captured on state-of-the-art (at the time) recording equipment. It's an event that should immediately catch the attention of all Kenton fans, while other big band aficionados and fans of jazz of the 1950s in general should welcome it as well. It's musically satisfying, aurally enjoyable, and most of all it's fun. What more could you ask?”
-ROBERT GORDON - January 2002
Here is a Stan Kenton Playlist made up of nine different videos that will provide you with a retrospective of his music.