Live Jazz: The Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Stan Centennial Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

It was big band night on Wednesday’s jazz program at the Hollywood Bowl.  And one couldn’t have chosen a more iconic pair of ensembles than the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Stan Centennial Orchestra.

Just to clarify that last name, it refers to Stan Kenton, whose birth centennial was actually in December, 2011.

The histories of the two original Orchestras were vastly different.

Duke Ellington

Ellington’s lasted  as one of the jazz world’s most significant and influential large ensembles from the ‘20s until his death in 1974. It has continued into the present under the leadership of his son Mercer, grandson Paul and other family members.

The Kenton Orchestra, often controversial for the leader’s efforts to expand the musical palette of the big jazz band styles, was formed in 1941 and didn’t survive his death in 1979, even though the Kenton “style” – primarily the product of Pete Rugolo, Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Bill Russo and others – has had a significant impact upon generations of young arrangers.

Those differences continued to be manifest in Wednesday’s performance.  The Ellington Orchestra that performed was an organized ensemble, the current and continuing installment of the Ellington legacy.  The Stan Centennial Orchestra was an assemblage of L.A.’s finest studio musicians, playing a selection of Kenton classics led by Bob Curnow, a former Kenton trombonist and arranger.

Stan Kenton

Given the quality of the players on stage and the significance of the music, there was a lot to praise.  Although the Kenton programming skipped over some areas of the Orchestra’s history, especially from the earliest years, what was present included such important items as Gerry Mulligan’s “Limelight,”  Bill Holman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Johnny Richards’ “Maria” from West Side Story and “Quien Sabe” from Cuban Fire and more.

The Kenton vocal segment featured the prime offerings of vocalist Tierney Sutton, whose singing was among the evening’s highlights.  Oddly, however, such major Kenton vocal hits as the June Christy version of “Tampico” and Anita O’Day’s “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” were not included.  Christy’s “Something Cool” – superbly done by Sutton – traces to a recording with Pete Rugolo, not Kenton.  And why in the world did Sutton sing “Day Dream,” and Ellington song, with the Kenton ensemble?

The Ellington segment, beginning appropriately with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” almost immediately offered a greater sense of authenticity, continuing to do so with “Black and Tan Fantasy, “Caravan,” “Satin Doll” and others. But here, too, the vocal portion of the program, featuring the multi-talented, pop singer/songwriter/musician Brian McKnight, veered away from the program’s focus.

McKnight’s singing with the Orchestra – especially on “Satin Doll” –  recalled the early Ellington vocal era with singers such as Herb Jeffries and Al Hibbler.  But that connection ended when McKnight sat at the piano, and played his own songs with the Ellington Orchestra simply watching.

It was a curious ending to a show filled with enough musical riches to have come to a more appropriate climax – a climax properly underscoring the production’s dedication to the Ellington and Kenton legacies.

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