Irony of the Month Dept.: Last week, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, conducted by Mercer Ellington, offered a splendid recital in a small, crowded nightclub--Marla's. On Tuesday and Wednesday, a far larger venue, the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, played host to an odd, ersatz entity billed as "Mostly Duke."
The show, embarking on a national tour, takes advantage of the Ellington name without ever displaying the late maestro's instrumental mastery. In fact, the only non-vocal Ellington music of the evening was "Cotton Tail," played with painful sluggishness by what sounded like a pickup band, under the nominal direction of Herb Jeffries, whose real role was that of emcee and singer.
Jeffries, who just turned 80, is amazing. He doesn't rely on nostalgia. His voice today is more commanding than it was decades ago when he sang his hit "Flamingo" with the Ellington Orchestra.
Barbara McNair made her way attractively through "Tomorrow Mountain," a lesser-known Ellington tune. She is in good voice these days, but when she ended with a so-called "Tribute to the Ladies of the Silver Screen," the corn grew tall. Barbara McNair saluting Doris Day? Come on!
The Mills Brothers' name has been part of the music scene through virtually this entire century. Death and retirement have reduced the group to a duo: Don Mills, 76, and original member, and his son John, 27. The material ranged from trivial to timeless.