Sentimental Swing: The Music of Tommy Dorsey PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:53 p.m., check local listings. Producer: Jim Washburn. Director: Kip Walton. Written by David Petitto. Produced for PBS by KCET, Los Angeles. It's easy to imagine that it is the swinging '40s and not the rock-bound '80s when a TV program like this tribute to Tommy Dorsey is aired.
Listeners who reached their teen and young-adult years when the big bands were at their height have been able to stay close to that era through their own carefully preserved recordings or through occasional albums of collected hits.
But what a treat to have taped big-band appearances today that feed the eye as well as the ear! In the case of ``Sentimental Swing,'' the opulent setting is the Hollywood Palladium, crammed with dinner-dancers, many of whom were around when the original Dorsey band played at the grand opening of this very ballroom back in 1940.
Unlike mere recordings, the television picture reminds us that those swinging sounds, so sentimentalized in memory, came from working musicians, disciplined teams. The bands even wore ``uniforms'' that put a final sartorial touch on the united effort, laced with inspired solo work.
PBS does this kind of tribute well. (A very similar program last year starred Benny Goodman and his orchestra.) The approximately two-hour show has only three station breaks, with reminders that public television depends on donations. So there is an agreeable flow to the Dorsey program, whose host, Mel Torm'e, beams with the enthusiasm of a longtime jazz/pop performer surrounded by musicians he respects.
Even PBS would not risk showing just a band performing, so there is a good bit of energetic camerawork. But the indomitable star of the show is still the music - 22 numbers, including some of the biggest Dorsey hits, these done in their original arrangements.
Trombonist Buddy Morrow leads the band, but (like Dorsey) does not feature himself, though he manages a fair imitation of the liquid sound that was characteristic of Tommy Dorsey's own style, particularly in his theme, ``Getting Sentimental Over You.''
Though not planned that way, the program constitutes a double tribute to Dorsey and the late Buddy Rich, drummer and one-time bandleader himself, who appeared prominently on the show, taped Jan. 15.
Here is a wonderful chance to see Mr. Rich doing what he obviously loved doing most - playing with a talented band and having his turn at a big solo. It is actually too brief a turn, but on ``Hawaiian War Chant'' he gives hints of his greatness - sticks slashing, rattling from snare to tomtom to screaming cymbals - as he makes the entire drum set an extension of his complex rhythmic imagination.
Vocalists Jack Jones and Maureen McGovern seem too much the established stars to fit comfortably in the role of vocalists with this band - indeed, any band. In the swing era, vocalists with big bands were subordinate to the musical arrangement. The singers often sat off to one side and moved to the microphone when their turn came.
As set up in this Dorsey tribute, however, the band is there to back up the entertainers' star turns in the manner of a Las Vegas nightclub act. This does not mean the Jones and McGovern numbers are not great; they just seem unauthentic in this context.
One nice touch was to enlist the talents of the five-person singing group the L.A. Voices, which creditably stood in for the vocal group used in many T.D. arrangements, including some novelty numbers like ``Whatcha Know Joe'' and one of the early Frank Sinatra classics, ``I'll Never Smile Again.''
Although some members of the orchestra may conceivably disdain such playfulness, it was fun to see the orchestra do as the original Dorsey band did: clap hands on the offbeat, where the arrangement called for it, or sing out the silly responsive lyrics to a song like ``Marie.'' In the old days we recognized in all this that the Dorsey band was not above participating in a bit of foolery to add spice to its sentimental fare. It's nice that the newest Dorsey band does it, too.