All it takes for the Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra to, literally, swing into action is the Duke and a sense of occasion.
In fact, the initial stimulus for the ensemble to exist was a series of tribute concerts as part of 1999 centennial celebrations honoring the birth of pioneering jazz composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington. The music of other artists (Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, among them) would eventually be explored, accounting for the “repertory” aspect of the repertoire. But it always seemed that Ellington gave the orchestra a purpose.
“It’s fair to say that in much of the country, because of Ellington’s centennial and because of the increased awareness of swing dancing and swing dance music right around the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was more than a flash of interest in big band music and Ellington’s music, too,” orchestra co-leader and pianist Richard Domek said. “That’s faded a bit over the years, which is unfortunate — at least as far as Ellington goes, because he’s really different than what a lot of the younger bands did. His music was just so colorful and so non-formulaic.”
Performances for swing dance organizations helped further the Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra’s visibility once attention to the Ellington centennial began to settle. What brings the orchestra back to active duty this weekend, though, is a fundraiser for Woodford Theatre’s May and June production of “The Duke, The Music, The Women (A Tribute to Duke Ellington).” In keeping with the musical’s title, Saturday’s concert will feature two female guest vocalists, Alicia McCorvey and Angie Ortega. The other jazz orchestra director, saxophonist Miles Osland, said one tune spotlighting Ortega will, almost coincidentally, celebrate the centennial of another jazz giant.
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“With Angie, we’ll be doing ‘Caravan, which is from the great album Ella Fitzgerald did with Duke (1957’s “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook,” the first recorded collaboration between the two artists). We’re playing the exact transcription from the original recording. That’s one of my favorite recordings of one of my favorite vocalists.
“But what’s crazy is April 25 (three days after the Woodford concert) marks the 100th birthday of Ella Fitzgerald. It’s so interesting how all this history comes together.”
Domek has transcribed numerous Ellington works for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
“What we’re doing is using many of the original Ellington scores and transcriptions,” he said. “Mostly, these are transcriptions, because there are no scores available for the older stuff. We’re using those tunes and, in some cases, kind of splicing in vocal sections that Ellington didn’t quite do in this way. But this helps acquaint an audience with two things: the recognition of all the songs Ellington has written — the successful ones like ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),’ ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ things people recognize — but also the sound of the Ellington orchestra, the ensemble sound, which, again, is just so different than what other bands were doing.
“Transcribing some of the stuff he did — well, everything he did, really — is like having a composition lesson. Sometimes when I’m at the piano, listening to a recording and jotting things down, I felt like he was standing right behind me — hopefully, with one hand on my shoulder saying, ‘That’s the way,’ as opposed to slapping me on the back of the head.”
The most notable sophisticated lady on hand Saturday will be Mercedes Ellington, a Broadway choreographer, tap dancer, director and producer, and a granddaughter of the jazz titan. She will be on hand for the Woodford concert and for an 11 a.m. reception that morning at Imani Baptist Church, 1555 Georgetown Road.
“That’s really exciting for Miles and I and for the band, too,” Domek said. “To be playing for Ellington’s granddaughter is incredibly exciting, because you’ve got that direct connection with somebody who has a real-life memory of the kinds of things he did, the kinds of successes he had and the kinds of trails that he blazed.”
If you go
The Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. April 22
Where: Woodford Theatre at Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles
Tickets: $40 (includes post-show reception)