Royce Hall, UCLA
(Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011)
Woody Allen’s love of New Orleans Jazz is known to even his most casual fans. He used the music to score Sleeper, the early-20th century sounds not only playing counterpoint to the futuristic setting, but giving a nod to the silent comedies that inspired its madcap physical humor. In Manhattan, the list of things that make life worth living included Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” (alongside Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando and the crabs at Sam Wo’s); and he has undertaken a fairly regular Monday night gig, playing clarinet with a group of like-minded musicians.
And that love animated the show that Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall Thursday night. It’s a project (although hobby seems the more accurate word) that’s very close to his heart, and he performs the music with the respect it deserves, crafting a well-balanced mix of uptown and downtown, sacred and scabrous. But at times the evening felt like a scene out of one of his “serious” movies: modest, earnest, muted, studious and at times sounding like it was written (or played) in translation. But given the median age of the performers, it also resembled the Dixieland version of The Lavender Hill Mob.
That’s not a knock. With its mix of ensemble choruses and solo intervals, this is social music, and their playing has an evident affection and easy interaction that comes only after years of playing together. Allen is a modest presence, speaking to the sold-out crowd only a few times in typical, self-deprecating style, joking that he’s “shocked and amazed” when people come out to hear him play. And he does nothing to call attention to himself during the show -- when he’s not playing, he sits, head down, tapping his foot, either holding his instrument across his lap or perched on his knee, declining to join in on backing vocals.
It’s not a false modesty, either. Allen is easily the weakest musician on stage, playing a difficult, unforgiving instrument. His tone is often aspirated and screechy, lacking the clarinet’s melted chocolate smoothness. But he’s surrounded himself with some fine players.
The most consistently engaging soloists are Jerry Zigmont on trombone and Conal Fowkes, while trumpeter Simon Wettenthal gained energy and fluidity as the night went on. Eddy Davis, an avuncular presence, sings plays the banjo and acts as musical director. Given the often relaxed tempos, the rhythm section of bassist Greg Cohen and John Gill on drums are not called on to overexert themselves, but they do nail their most important job: they swing.
While Allen’s New Orleans Band might not be the mightiest ensemble around, it’s hard not to feel good when hearing “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” or “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” performed live. They certainly didn’t want to leave the stage, returning for two generous encores.
Whatever their shortcomings, Allen has, without meaning to, stepped into Armstrong’s shoes, becoming and ambassador for New Orleans Jazz. It’s hard to know what percentage of the audience knew much about the music upon taking their seats, but if even ten or twenty ticket buyers were inspired to check out Bix Biederbecke or Armstrong’s Hot Fives recordings, Allen has every reason to be proud.