Hard as it is to recall, long before the klieg lights of “Star Wars,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Boston Pops made John Williams a household name, there was Johnny Williams, fluent jazzman. Johnny has been carefully hidden behind film maestro John for more than 30 years now. But once in a great while, Johnny resurfaces to surprise us all, as he did Sunday, leading a big band in his long-forgotten 1964 jazz treatment of nearly the entire score of “My Fair Lady.”
The great drummer Shelly Manne, who already had a hot-selling “My Fair Lady” jazz trio album under his belt from 1956, initiated this expanded sequel to tie in with the film version of the tuner eight years later. Capitol released the sequel, but it didn’t have the legs of the classic trio version, which is still available on the Contemporary label (distributed by Concord).
The Williams “My Fair Lady” was resurrected at Tanglewood in 2004 — and, as revealed in Disney Hall on Sunday, stands as a fascinating jazz transformation of the score, no mere medley of hits.
A continuous piece lasting 50 minutes, Williams’ “My Fair Lady” is actually a concerto grosso for jazz quintet, two singers (here Dianne Reeves and Brian Stokes Mitchell) and big band, pouring many of the familiar tunes into unexpected vessels.
In an iconoclastic, unsentimental way, Williams leaves his vocalists out of most of the show‘s most popular hits (“On the Street Where You Live,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I‘ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”); places biting, Gil Evans-like dissonances into “Wouldn‘t It Be Loverly”; and lets his excellent band shout on “Ascot Gavotte.”
The Williams arrangement doesn‘t sound dated at all in the 21st century, but that‘s also a reflection of how little the mainstream big band idiom has changed 40 years on.
Reeves was her professional, smooth self, perfectly at home in the bursts of patter in “Show Me,” while Mitchell — who sounds like a jazzy Johnny Mathis — had some humorous moments in Prof. Henry Higgins’ misogynistic rants.
The piece was also a solo showcase for Manne in his time — drummer Steve Houghton was a faithful exponent of Manne’s soft touch with the brushes — and trumpeter Carl Saunders was in ripping good form all night.
In a brief set before Williams and the big band came in, the quintet warmed up with straight-ahead workouts upon “Love Is Here to Stay” and “Friends Again,” and Mitchell and Reeves got in a pair of songs each.