Tom Culver: Tom Culver Sings Duke Ellington

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Tom Culver

Tom Culver Sings Duke Ellington

Upstairs at Vitello’s, Studio City, CA, June 7, 2018

Reviewed by Peter Leavy for Cabaret Scenes

Tom Culver
Photo: Angie Clement Cromwell

Even for a longtime aficionado of the musical icon Duke Ellington, Tom Culver’s engaging show at Los Angeles’ Upstairs at Vitello’s was a delectable reminder of the extraordinary contribution of Ellington to the annals of American music. Almost a half-century after his passing, the first few bars of the majority of selections had us nodding in instant recognition, applauding and finger-tapping along. 

To call Ellington a prolific composer doesn’t do him justice. His biography claims that, in addition to leading one of the most celebrated bands in jazz history, he composed more than 3,000 songs, many of which are as familiar to audiences today as they were in the era in which they were written.   

Culver’s band, the Rick Hils Quintet, paved the way for his entry onstage and opening vocal with an energetic rendition of “Duke’s Place,” featuring some scintillating licks on the saxophone by Jim Jedikin, a frequent highlighter during the show on both clarinet and flute as well. Although there were a few lesser-known numbers, the show was replete with long-time favorites, including “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” (lyrics: Bob Russell), “(In My) Solitude” (Eddie DeLange) and “Sophisticated Lady” (Mitchell Parrish) all receiving appreciative renditions by Culver and his musicians. Not wanting to ignore some other Ellington classics in a show that could only manage a dozen and a half all told, Culver created a medley with “Satin Doll” (Billy Strayhorn/Johnny Mercer), “Mood Indigo” (Parrish), “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Russell), plus “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” to which the audience enthusiastically accompanied Culver and the band with its own “Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah….”  

Midway, Culver yielded the microphone and the stage to guest vocalist Marsha Bartenetti, an appealing singer equally at home with the Ellington oeuvre.  Bartenetti did justice to three numbers: “Just a-Sittin and a-Rockin’” (Strayhorn/Lee Gaines) with memorable clarinet support from Jedikin; “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” (Paul Francis Webster); and, in duet with Culver, “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Don George/Johnny Hodges/Harry James).

“Caravan” (Juan Tizol) was heavy on the rhythm, with an outstanding contribution by drummer Shikano Tsugumi. Less featured, but no less contributing to the success of the program, were bassist Teresa Sanchez, guitarist Barry Sweig, and the piano and arrangements of music director Rick Hils.

Culver elected to close the show with the infrequently heard “Love You Madly,” which triggered one nearby singer to say, enviously, “I’m going to steal that number.” “The encore says it all,” Culver informed us, as he ended the enchanted evening with “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” (Mack David).
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So were those of us in the audience.
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Peter Leavy

As a youthful columnist, Peter offered dating advice to Seventeen magazine’s teen readers. Simultaneously, his “think pieces” and articles on entertainment appeared in other national magazines. Editing four magazines for a small publisher when the Korean Conflict erupted, Peter entered military service, becoming Editor-in-chief of The Army Home Town News Center. After service, he joined the family business and in the ensuing decades created several companies in the fashion and home decoration industry. Peter signed on as one of the first contributors to the fledgling Cabaret Scenes magazine, later was named associate editor and, in 2007, took over as publisher.