“The big bands are coming back!” It’s a cry that’s been heard since the glory years of the Swing Era fi nally fizzled in the ‘50s.
But pianist and composer Bill Elliott is a firm believer in the vitality of the music that burst out of the Depression-plagued ‘30s.
“As long as I can remember, swing has chronically threatened to make a comeback,” he says. “But the time seems particularly ripe, with fusion and New Age at an exhausted dead end, new means of narrowcasting to specialized audiences, and a real hunger out there for something that’s actually fun.”
The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra is his response to that hunger. Organized less than a year ago, the 15-piece ensemble was greeted by enthusiastic listeners at a recent Cinegrill debut. On Tuesday, they will make their first San Fernando Valley appearance, performing at the Moonlight Tango in Sherman Oaks. The group performs with the singing quartet Vocalworks (Debbie Reeder, Tim Reeder, Bruce Cooper and Michael Geigerand), and features singer Amy Weston.
Lenetta Kidd, who produces the big band programs for the club, was attracted to the group’s original approach to swing music. “They re-create the swing sound so well and in such an original way,” she says. “As soon as I heard them, I knew I had to book them. I just love the band’s sound.”
Elliott is careful to note that he has no interest in comparisons with the remaining “ghost bands,” such as the Tommy Dorsey-, Glenn Miller-styled units. Neither does he care to simply reproduce present-day versions of past hits.
“I find swing, as it’s generally played today, to be flabby, tepid and frozen in the mid-'50s style, which represented the decadent tail end of the era,” Elliott says. “What I’ve done is sweep away all the cobwebs and restore the elements that made swing so exciting when it was young and new.”
The soloists are able to, in Elliott’s description, “turn off the be-bop and play authentic hot swing without condescension.”
Arranger Paul Weston, whose daughter, Amy, is the Elliott Orchestra’s featured vocalist, agrees.
“One of the factors that makes Bill’s music special is the enthusiasm of his musicians,” says Weston, who wrote for Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, among others. “They play with the same kind of bite and spirit that the big bands used to have.”
Despite his affection for the Swing Era, Elliott has had no personal experience with it. At 40, he is part of a generation that grew up with the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll. Born in Boston, he started out as a rock keyboardist, from his late teens working with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Seatrain, America and Jennifer Warnes.
After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, he began to concentrate on film and television. Among his more recent credits are a song called “Pep, Vim and Verve” for the “Dick Tracy” film, and a piece for the television series “Northern Exposure.” He also composes and orchestrates for commercials and recordings.
But Elliott’s favorite project is the Swing Orchestra. And he is so convinced that big band music is still viable that he believes he can reach younger members of the entertainment audience.
To do so, he knew he would have to “create a band that seemed to have roared out of a time machine.” Feedback from his recent audiences appears to indicate that he has done exactly that.
Elliott has been fascinated, at his performances, to see “couples in their 20s, dressed to kill in ‘40s-style glamour duds, who know how to do a proper jitterbug, and know when the band is playing something worth listening to.”
“We’re not gonna be Guns N’ Roses,” he says. “But I do believe there are plenty of people out there who will love what we’re doing.
“For me, this has been a Walter Mitty-like experience of fulfilling a lifelong daydream,” Elliott adds. “And I’ve decided that life is too short for me not to be a swing bandleader.”
WHERE AND WHEN
What: The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra.
Location: Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
Hours: 8 and 9:45 p.m. shows Tuesday. Dinner served from 7 to 11 p.m.
Price: Admission is $13 for 8 p.m. show, $9 for the 9:45 show. In addition, a $9.95 food and / or beverage minimum.
Call: (818) 788-2000.