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Jazz Review

Savoring the Duke's 100th a Bit Early

April 26, 1999|DON HECKMAN

The rush of celebratory events for the Duke Ellington centennial (which actually takes place Thursday) is beginning to flow rapidly. On Saturday at Thorne Hall at Occidental College, a nine-piece ensemble led by veteran Los Angeles musician Buddy Collette presented a program of music associated with Ellington as part of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department's "Duke Ellington Centennial Concerts."

The music of Ellington and, in this case, of music written by others but performed by the Ellington Orchestra, can be interpreted in many ways. The choice for the program was to favor the songs over the compositions, using the fertile catalog of Ellington material--"Things Ain't What They Use to Be," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Squeeze Me," "Take the 'A' Train," among others--as the starting points for individual soloing.

Only in rare cases--"Mood Indigo" was one--did the ensemble do much exploration of the lush Ellington textures. And on pieces such as " 'A' Train" and "Perdido," the melodies were simply performed in unison by the front line instruments before extended soloing began.

The resulting music had less to do with Ellington than it did with the performers on stage. Still, although it would have been more intriguing to have heard a richer review of the full content of the music, rather than a concentration upon its melodies and harmonies, the talented artists in the ensemble did a solid job of filling in the gaps.

George Bohanon's hard-swinging trombone work was persistently tinged with an Ellington touch, and saxophonist Ann Patterson added an unusual timbre to "Caravan" with an atmospheric oboe solo. Trumpeter Al Aarons, tenor saxophonist Charles Owens and baritone saxophonist John Stephens all contributed characteristically solid efforts, and violinist Lisa Terry (the niece of former Ellington trumpeter Clark Terry) added a powerful rendering of "Come Sunday." In the rhythm section, pianist Gerald Wiggins, drummer Ndugu Chancler and bassist Richard Simon moved matters along with style and substance. And young vocalist Dante Chambers tried his best with several Ellington numbers (including the difficult-to-sing "In a Sentimental Mood").

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