A little bit of Gotham came west Thursday night, as Woody Allen’s New Orleans band played at UCLA. Though the music wasn’t as momentous as the Eddie Condon Town Hall concerts of the 1940s, you’d never know it from the audience. Three generous encores and you’d think it was Woodstock and they’d just seen Hendrix.
Were they discerning jazz fans? Likely not, though one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers pursuing his hobby is apparently enough to nearly fill Royce Hall. Allen’s brief and humble remarks made it clear that the music was the star. This outfit, which plays weekly at New York's Cafe Carlyle, has a good time while playing well, and transmits its enthusiasm. College students, revved up on an 80-year-old jazz style, just might investigate it further.
They are fine musicians, save one. Cornetist Simon Wettenhall was a consistently rewarding soloist--touching Bix Beiderbecke’s tone here, Jabbo Smith’s tailspin flights there. Trombonist Jerry Zigmont was an exuberant tailgate preacher throughout.
Strictly speaking, Allen and company didn’t confine themselves to Dixieland repertory: Jelly Roll Morton’s “Milenberg Joys” and “Down By the Riverside,” yes, but “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” “Swinging on a Star” (a Bing Crosby hit) and “Oh You Beautiful Doll” are old Tin Pan Alley fare. They must be great fun to play on.
Banjoist Eddy Davis, pianist Conal Fowkes, and bassist Greg Cohen form the ensemble backbone. (Drummer John Gill underplays, as though walking on eggshells.) Fowkes’s contrary motion, Davis’s substitute chords, and Cohen’s arco work indicate there’s much they’re not telling in this context.
Allen’s clarinet won’t make anyone forget Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard or Evan Christopher. His piping tone and strings of staccato notes can’t approximate melodic or lyrical phrasing. Still his earnestness and the obvious regard he has for traditional jazz counts for something.
It’s tempting to pine for a charismatic frontman-singer, like the late George Melly, to lead these fine talents in a more forceful, focused stage direction. But that would change the casual chemistry of this group and make it into something that it’s not.
If this same group, even with a more proficient (albeit lower profile) clarinetist only played a local Moose Lodge each week, it wouldn’t be able to fill Royce Hall. That makes the Woody Allen band a curio — entertaining and occasionally delightful — but a curio nonetheless.