When asked to explain what they were trying to do in individual pieces, musicians often say they’d rather the music speak for itself. In considering the biographical revue “To Louis Armstrong,” which premiered at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival on Friday, that seems like a mighty fine idea.
It’s difficult to go too far wrong when you start out with basic materials as solid as Armstrong’s finest compositions –which, by extension, rank among the sturdiest in jazz history — and a passel of the finest performers in jazz today. Director Roz Nixon wasted a good opportunity to fully illuminate the legend of Satchmo, however, adding far too little supporting substance to the mix.
At the piece’s onset, Nixon joined the musicians onstage and told the audience she’d be shouldering the role of griot in order to further the narrative. Unfortunately, she didn’t even approach those mystical heights, and ended up sounding more like the narrator of a live action version of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”
Set in Texas, circa 1962, “To Louis Armstrong” follows vocalist Melba Joyce from a stint fronting a local jazz combo to stardom with Armstrong’s band — a move she actually made in her late teens. The piece opens with a medley of several instrumental chestnuts — including filips of “Sunny Side of the Street” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”–ostensibly performed by the locals.
The musicians, all of whom slip in and out of character, conveyed the small-town vibe of the scene quite well, particularly wisecracking drummer Bernard Purdie.
It took an entrance from Joyce — enmeshed in an argument with her dresser-to kick the piece into gear, though. Her knowingly weary interpretations of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Black and Blue” were dreamily poignant — a tone balanced by a good-humored rendition of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” that Joyce dedicated to trumpeter Hargrove, her stage spouse.
Both Hargrove and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon evoked the spirit of Armstrong’s music lovingly, conveying both the jazz giant’s rambunctious side (in a spicy “High Society”) and his lyrical elegance (a lovely “Sleepy Time Down South”).
Sentimentality takes over in the suite’s latter stages, with Joyce (by now entrenched in the spotlight) leading audience sing-alongs on energetic-but-undistinguished versions of “Hello, Dolly” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”