Louis Armstrong was the fountainhead of solo jazz improvisation and a great entertainer besides. You would always come away from an Armstrong performance feeling good about the world, even through the distant medium of recordings. Yet when the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and an army of guests tried to fete Armstrong on Wednesday night, that feeling came only in spurts — and usually when the spirit of Satchmo was invoked more or less directly.
It was a wide-ranging, at times baffling, and in a few instances, daring panorama; presumably John Clayton wanted to show how Armstrong’s influence seeped down through the decades.
Having the CHJO’s plunger-mute trumpet master, Eugene “Snooky” Young, lead off the night with some rousing, magnificently pithy blues set the right heroic tone. Alas, the CHJO’s elegiac treatments of a trio of Armstrong-associated tunes afterward deflated the mood, but the Preservation Hall Jazz Band pumped it right back up. As we’ve long known from the Playboy fests, this brand of exuberant, rollicking Dixieland interplay is a sure-fire hit at the Hollywood Bowl, and they should have had more time to blow.
They gave way to Roy Hargrove, who after some stimulating experiments with Afro-Cuban music seems to have fallen back upon his old neo-bop verities. He’s got a fine quintet, no question — they react well to each other, even breaking into some fat-back funk at set’s end — yet they were from another planet as far as the theme of the night was concerned.
Jon Faddis delivered the best tribute, opening “West End Blues” with a brilliant solo exposition that brought Armstrong forward about 20 years; imagine Satchmo meeting Dizzy and you’ve got the idea. Later, Faddis pulled off a playful, gravel-voiced impression of Pops introducing long-dead musicians (with only Snooky, 81, playing himself), even singing “What a Wonderful World” rather nicely.
The quirkiest set came from Nicholas Payton, who may look like the young Armstrong but veered further away from his idiom than anyone. His deliciously unorthodox 12-piece lineup (with Afro-Cuban percussion and tuba) underused its assets with conventional bop-derived takes on “Potato Head Blues” and “St. James Infirmary,” but then started doing some weird, bottom-heavy, second-line New Orleans things to “Tiger Rag” and fractured “Hello Dolly!” into a semi-bossa nova with wild brass interjections. Bold stuff, not always coherent, but at least it tried to lead Satchmo’s material down some strange new alleys.