The phrase “ghost band” is often used — in a pejorative sense — to describe tired, lingering big bands whose leaders have long since departed. But for Wednesday night at least, that term deserved to be retired for the bands that bore the names of the late leaders Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. As for the third band, its leader Gerald Wilson — a Los Angeles civic treasure at 87 — couldn’t be more active and thriving.
The parade began with the locally stocked orchestra of Wilson, who isn’t shy about claiming his place in jazz history, while proving it with his still-robust leadership and insistence upon compulsive swing. Their set was heavily based on the blues, with fairly warm to hot soloing all around. Wilson’s superb guitarist son Anthony provided a few mellow oases and even a couple of stretches of Kenton-like dissonance.
Then the decibel level cranked up several notches as the Kenton band went to work, covering more than 30 years of Kentonia in rough chronological order from Stan’s visionary charts of the ’40s to ’70s-era semi-bossa nova. From the first notes forward, this bunch created a solid facsimile of the blazing fire and punch of the Kenton brass sound of his mid-1950s and ’60s bands; they projected accurately and powerfully without distortion through the sound system.
More than that, this Kenton tribute band swung irresistibly because it was driven by a de facto Weather Report rhythm team in drummer Peter Erskine — the most important alumnus of Kenton’s later bands — and percussionist Alex Acuna. The Bowl should do a full-scale Kenton Festival someday, so maybe we could hear more radical, idiosyncratic numbers on the scale of “Artistry In Percussion” or the complete “The Peanut Vendor” (which was represented only by its wild trumpet riff in a medley).
The Gillespie band, by contrast, was not so much an ensemble effort — or even a vehicle for Dizzy’s repertoire — as it was a showcase for its soloists. Understandable, con- sidering the stack of heavy hitters in the band.
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove was a cool bopster on this occasion; Jimmy Heath played smooth, fluid tenor sax; James Moody got lots of space for his luxurious tenor sax and humorous singing, scatting and even rapping The set, mostly taken from the band’s next album “Dizzy’s Business” (out Sept. 26 on MCG Jazz), also extensively featured the young Italian singer Roberta Gambarini, who has a voluptuously textured way with words and scat syllables.