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MUSIC : Getting Into the '30s Swing : Bill Elliott writes original tunes in the style made famous by Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey.

June 30, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

BURBANK — When pianist/composer Bill Elliott steps on stage with his Swing Orchestra, he may not be in heaven, but it sure comes close.

"Swing music is the happiest music that's ever been created," says Elliott, 43, who leads his 15-piece ensemble--plus singer Amy Weston and vocal quartet the Lucky Stars--on Tuesday at the Starlight Bowl. "It's so light-hearted and full of positive energy. I especially love watching the enjoyment on the faces of the people who are listening or dancing as we re-create something that was done 50 or 60 years ago and have it come back to life."

A musician who has made his living doing everything from playing rock piano with Bonnie Raitt (from 1976 to 1978) to arranging songs for the video sequels to "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," Elliott brings his own take to swing by writing originals in the flavor of the older music played by Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford and others. He says audiences are responding to his foot-tapping style, which can be heard on his CD, "Swing Fever."

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"People seem to like the fact that we have our own music, as opposed to just playing vintage music," says Elliott, a native of Boston who lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Vicky, and their daughter, Kate, 2 1/2.

Elliott does include versions of numbers made famous by other bands, but these are less-frequently heard tunes, such as Duke Ellington's "Azure," Benny Goodman's "Down South Camp Meetin' " and Lunceford's "Tain't What You Do."

No matter what he's playing, the basically self-taught Elliott wants the music to sound the way it did in the past, because then, he says, bands had more energy and drive. So he's a stickler for authenticity.

"That means doing everything the way they did it 50 to 60 years ago, including using guitar without an amp, using six brass players instead of eight, and having calfskin heads on the drums," he says. "Everyone on the band understands we do everything in the context of '30s swing."

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Elliott debuted the band at the Cinegrill in Hollywood about two years ago. He's since played the Greek Theatre (backing Michael Feinstein, who employs an Elliott arrangement on his new "Such Sweet Sorrow" CD), Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Sherman Oaks and the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.

Coming engagements include three nights--July 21 and Aug. 4 and 18--at Abiquiu restaurant in Santa Monica. One of the people who has enjoyed his music is Gail Stewart, who works for the Burbank Department of Parks and Recreation and who booked Elliott for the Starlight.

"I saw Bill at the Greek Theatre with Michael Feinstein, and he was so full of energy," Stewart says. "Piano players usually just sit there, but Bill was dancing, singing and playing. With all that energy, I thought he'd be great for our Fourth of July show."

Swing music had been Elliott's hobby from the time he was a teen-ager, when he began playing Fats Waller-style stride piano. But swing hopped right up from the back burner in December, 1989, when Elliott traveled to Boston to record one of his songs with the White Heat Swing Orchestra, which was used on the soundtrack of the film, "Dick Tracy."

"From the minute I counted off the number 'Pep, Vim and Verve' and started playing piano and singing, I was completely at home," Elliott says. "It was great fun, and I thought that this is what I should be doing with my life--leading a band in swing music that I have written."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Bill Elliott's Swing Orchestra. Location: Starlight Bowl, 1249 Lockheed View Drive, Burbank. Hours: 7 p.m. Tuesday. Price: $5 to $20, with advance ticket purchase highly recommended, since show sells out. Call: (818) 953-9572.

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