A classy act from head to toe, Duke Ellington probably would have liked nothing better than to see a gala evening devoted to his music — at an elegant concert hall, with a major-league orchestra, a top-flight conductor, a famous bandleader, a jazz big band and a beautiful female singing star. Getting these ingredients to mesh into a satisfying concert, though, is not easy; the idioms are almost contradictory by definition. It can be done — and, at times, it was done at the L.A. Philharmonic’s unusual gala season opener Wednesday night. But at other moments, the stretch and the strain were obvious.
In any case, the concert provided a rare, welcome opportunity to see gala co-chair Quincy Jones — normally occupied with a hundred other things — lead a band in person during the concert’s second half. At first, he seemed at an unusual loss for words, but once the tonic of Ellingtonia started flowing through him, his body language became looser and the stories about the old days laced with contemporary jargon (“They didn’t have anything to sample!”) began to pour forth.
Jones also had the benefit of the concert’s most convincing arrangements, courtesy of Sultans of Swing leader David Berger. “Mood Indigo,” with its front line of clarinet, muted trumpet and trombone, backed by an unobtrusive carpet of strings, was a haunting suggestion of the real thing — the first one of the night — and from there, Jones produced some increasingly swinging ensembles from the giant combined forces of the Sultans and the Phil. With Esa-Pekka Salonen leading a bizarre combination of three clarinets and rhythm section, Jones also narrated a wry little Ellington rarity, a vignette called “Pretty and the Wolf.”
For Salonen, who has been bravely reaching beyond his European intellectual classical base toward different musical hybrids, the Ellington idiom was more difficult to capture. Perhaps due to insufficient rehearsal time, “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” — often known just as “Harlem” — was simply incoherent, chaotically balanced and only sporadically swinging (it’s a better piece than it sounded). Ravel’s “La Valse,” included because of Ravel’s influence on Ellington, fared better, fussy in phrasing yet crystal-clear in texture.
In Audra McDonald’s set, Salonen could relax with suave, uptown symphonic pops and simply let his singer shine. And shine she did, handling “Diga Diga Do” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” with Broadway pizzazz, displaying exquisite control and languorous clarity in “Sophisticated Lady” and “Solitude,” sweetly recalling Kay Davis’ vocalise on “On a Turquoise Cloud” as backed by a lovely Delius-like chart. The Duke would have been dazzled by her.