The Story Of The Echoes Of Ellington Orchestra.
These days it is quite common for a stateside visitor to the UK to make sure tickets to their favourite show are in the bag before traveling. But what of the dedicated swing dancer? Who should they check is in town before boarding? The answer is the glory that is The Echoes Of Ellington Orchestra.
The story starts in 1991 when Pete Long was asked to put together a band for a Christmas event at the Ruislip Golf Club near London, England. The evening was such a success that he was asked to repeat it in 1993. Pete had 7 Ellington arrangements for study, and so the show featured a special segment dedicated to The Duke. The result was another storming show, and the outcome was a demand for more - not only from the crowd, but also the band members. To this day, the Orchestra is still made up of those original players, with added ingredient Bob Hunt.
They rehearsed throughout the Summer of 1994 and made their non-golf club debut at The Mill Hill School Music Society in January 1995. At this stage their singer was the delightful Clare Flynn, who is featured on their debut CD "Main Stem". Sadly, Clare was to inherit a huge house in Canada and so left England for good. However, a ready-made replacement was at hand.
Pete had worked in the past in a "Weddings, Birthdays and Barmitzvahs Band" with a certain Patti Revell, the wife of a long-time friend. She made her debut with the band at The Barbican Arts Centre in London. It was the band's third gig, and Pete had many things on his mind when he came to introduce the new vocalist to the crowd. Unfortunately, the singer's first name was not one of them. As the moment drew near to bring her on, and nothing came to mind, in an inspired piece of improvisation he bellowed "Please welcome....Mrs. Revell!" To this day she is introduced in this way, with the added comment "Don't ask what her first name is - it's missus!"
Keeping a big band on the road permanently is not a commercial possibility in the UK, and the players have other gigs to pay the bills between Echoes gigs. At the moment, Pete Long and a couple of others are in the orchestra pit for the West End production of "Oliver". The trumpet section are taking Lord Lloyd Webber's shilling in "Starlight Express" and the newly-revived "Jesus Christ Superstar". One member is on the road with Cliff Richard, a Peter Pan-esque pop star since the 1950's. Tom Gordon, occasional drummer with EoE is the principal tympanist with The Moscow State Ballet.
As Pete admits, there are at least three Ellington repertory bands working in the UK at the moment. So what sets Echoes apart from the others? One secret weapon in the Long armoury is Alan Prosser, arranger extraordinaire, who has the uncanny ability to listen to the original records and then proceed to unscramble the score. While other bands make use of the public access to Ellington arrangements at The Smithsonian, about 20 per cent of Echoes material comes from this source, while 80 per cent is the result of Mr. Prosser's gift.
An evening with Echoes Of Ellington is an event to treasure. While bringing the music of The Duke alive, it is embellished with great humour and entertainment. There is constant chattering on the bandstand as any deps are kept in order and during "C Jam Blues" everyone knows who is taking the next solo.
Pete Long's presentational style owes more to David Letterman than any bygone jazzer, featuring as it does much friendly abuse of the audience. Evenings now feature moments like "The Commercial Break" when their CD "Main Stem" is heavily plugged.
Another interlude is "Anorak Corner", a large unfashionable weatherproof coat preferred by people who stand on railway platforms taking notes of train numbers as they travel through stations. There are actually fans that follow the band around keeping notebooks of who played what and when. On several occasions Pete has been accosted by one during the interval with a comment such as "Ah yes but when you did that number two years ago you used a number 8 reed..."!
The Echoes set comprises many classic numbers and some lesser-known gems. Yes "Take The 'A' Train", yes "Main Stem", yes "Harlem Airshaft", but also "Rose Of The Rio Grande" and "Blue Cellophane". During "The Flaming Sword", Pete has been known to don a pineapple hat, in order to add that South American flavour. For the full Xavier Cugat effect, a stuffed poodle has been sighted tucked underneath his arm, although this is discarded early in the number. "It's hard to play the clarinet while cuddling a dog" explained Pete.
From the later years comes the cover of the Chick Webb tune "Let's Get Together". This was performed recently at a charity function in The Savoy Hotel in London complete with a troupe of Lindy Hoppers. As the Harlem club was named after this one, Lindy finally came home.
Recently they have been working with The Birmingham Ballet, playing Billy Strayhorn's 1960 arrangement of "The Nutcracker Suite". The show goes on tour around the UK in May and June this year. Apart from that there are the visits to The 100 Club during the year, and private functions, although Pete is cutting down on these now. "We aren't really understood" he explains. "The audience sit and look at us and then get up to dance to a disco afterwards".
In April Echoes attend The Ellington Society celebration in Leeds. For this, Pete and singer Patti are preparing to recreate "The Monologue", an eight-minute number with music, narration and dancing. Mrs. Revell has been sighted at Ryan Francois' beginners class in order to be ready for this. Pete adds "It's from 1951. The singer at the time was Nichelle Nicholls who also danced. Then she stuck a spark plug in her ear and went off to become Lieutenant Uhuru on the Enterprise in 'Star Trek'".
We can expect a new live CD from the residency at Ronnie Scott's Club in London. For anyone out there who fancies a slice of immortality, Pete Long is looking for around $15,000 of sponsorship in order to get the Orchestra in the studio to record a songbook. He has the material and is looking for a benefactor who understands the importance of preserving this music, and would like to get their name on the CD cover in preposterously large letters. Interested parties for this venture (or the "Main Stem" CD price £10) can contact Pete at 59 Moring Road London SW17 8DN England.
© Andrew Winton 1997.
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