Let’s blame it on the heat: Stifling temperatures and still air Wednesday made the Hollywood Bowl an uncomfortable sauna that seemingly sapped the energy out of the Hollywood Jazz Orchestra. The ad hoc orch, under the baton of Dick Hyman, spent the first hour rendering professional yet lifeless reproductions of the swing-related music that fills so many of Woody Allen’s films. Fortunately, the four lead singers cut through the heavy with zesty perfs.
Bringing together the music from the 1920s through the late ’40s that Allen has used to great effect in many of his films was a fabulous idea. And in Hyman, the Bowl had a pianist-conductor who has worked in a musical capacity on 11 of Allen’s pics. But between instrumental passages that had little spark, occasional clips that didn’t sync with the music and a few perfs that required intimacy to succeed, the concert came off like a 1970s “pops” program that was safe for the whole family.
After starting with a rather dull “Zelig” overture, program went from film to film — “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Radio Days,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Deconstructing Harry” and “Everyone Says I Love You” — until a big three closer: a sterile “Rhapsody in Blue” (“Manhattan”) with pianist Bryan Pezzone; “When You’re Smiling” (“Mighty Aphrodite”), featuring the whole cast and a film clip that worked; and Hyman soloing on “As Time Goes By” while stills from “Play It Again, Sam” appeared on the screen.
Life of the party were the singers Nellie McKay, Sandra Bernhard, Curtis Stigers and Ann Hampton Callaway. McKay, the eclectic singer-songwriter who balances Sondheim and Randy Newman in her writing style, was perfectly matched with “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” the Frank Loesser/Jule Styne tune used in “Radio Days,” and “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” which Loesser wrote with Arthur Schwartz.
Bernhard, whose Broadway-tuned voice is a secret unless you’ve seen one of her stage shows, clicked with vocalese classic “Twisted” and made Sidney Mitchell’s “All My Life” a show-stopper. Stigers, whose recordings for Concord are more ensconced in the smooth jazz arena these days, delivered crisp renditions of “Cheek to Cheek” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me” but wasn’t the best choice for a narrator. Callaway, a cabaret singer most at home with this material, delivered personality-plus on several of her numbers but was at her best delivering a straightforward reading of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song.”
Howard Alden’s two Django Reinhardt-inspired pieces from “Sweet and Lowdown” were peppy and fun but lacking in the fiery interplay among musicians that marked Reinhardt’s career. Trumpeter Byron Stripling provided throwback stylings on his horn and vocals.