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Jazz Reviews : Fitting Tribute to Ellington in Dana Point

August 23, 1995|BILL KOHLHAASE

DANA POINT — Duke Ellington is the most-honored jazz musician, if not the most-honored American musician, in the world. Not a moment goes by in which his music is not being played by someone, somewhere across the globe.

But a simple airing of "Sophisticated Lady" or "Take the 'A' Train" doesn't paint a very complete picture of Edward Kennedy Ellington. For example, did you know that Ellington had aspirations as a painter and that he saw music not in terms of notes and measures, but visualized them in colors?

You'd know it if you had attended "Night With Duke Ellington," presented Monday by the Great American Music Company at DeMario's restaurant. Led by bassist Jack Prather, the GAMC not only gave fine presentations of both well-known and obscure numbers from the Ellington songbook, but provided insight into the Duke's career in a way that gave the tunes that much more weight.

And there was a direct connection to the Ellington legacy present: cornetist Bill Berry, who spent a year in the Ellington orchestra in the early '60s and whose L.A. Big Band specializes in his music. The cornetist gave the show an air of authenticity, both in his playing and between-tune asides, that made it all the more special.

Another special touch came from vocalists Stephanie Haynes and Dewey Erney. Singing separately or in unison, the two brought a sense of reverence to the Ellington collection, even on such bouncy numbers as "C Jam Blues."

Together, they navigated the tough melody of "Serenade to Sweden" in game style, blending well with the band and each other. Individually, they made moving, nostalgia-tinged statements.

Haynes was particularly stirring. Her warmth and depth colored "Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me" and her reading of Jon Hendrick's lyric to "Lotus Blossom" was both soulful and intimate. But her most respectful deliveries came on "Come Sunday" and her rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," performances that rank Haynes as a singer of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity.

Though Berry underwent open-heart surgery at the end of last year, he played with typical bursts of energy and unerring placement. His improvisation on "What Am I Here For?" seemed to answer the title's question with exuberance and celebration.

Pianist Dick Shreve, despite working on a modest spinet, brought infectious, swinging touches to his accompaniment and harmonically interesting improvisations. During his solo arrangement for "Satin Doll," he wound a fascinating string of chords across this chestnut's lyrical framework.

Swing also was the thing with bassist Prather and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Prather's walk was both supportive and pushy, keeping a tune such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" moving along with unerring certainty. His bowed solo on "Cottontail" carried a vocalist's warmth. LaBarbera, the former Bill Evans associate, was tasteful throughout the performance, constantly finding new ways to generate rhythmic charm. He propelled "Perdido" simply with taps to his closed hi-hat cymbal and its stand.

Prather's arrangement of the material and his organization of the show was both clever and informative. He lumped three blues-based tunes together in a medley, then tied them together when Haynes reintroduced the lyrics to "Rocks in My Bed" as Erney sang "Thing Ain't What They Used to Be."

Another medley combined Ellington's most popular tunes, including "Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," while still another paired the more obscure "Lotus Blossom" and "Daydream."

* The Great American Music Company presents its "Night With Duke Ellington" on Monday at DeMario's, 17 Monarch Bay Plaza, Dana Point. 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Cover: $7, and $10 minimum. (714) 240-9436.

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