Jack Benny and Henny Youngman played the violin, Morey Amsterdam the cello, Johnny Carson drums. But Woody Allen has taken his clarinet beyond the status of prop or hobby with his famous Monday-night New York club gigs (now at the Cafe Carlyle), a European tour (as documented in the 1998 film “Wild Man Blues”) and now his first North American tour. He had appeared in L.A. before, but at the Jazz Bakery, not in a large venue like Royce Hall. The curious packed the hall Saturday night to find a traditional New Orleans jazz septet, with its bespectacled celebrity frontman playing it absolutely straight.
The band may have been casually, even offhandedly dressed, and Allen may have wanted to give the impression that this was an act straight from someone’s living room. But this band obviously knows its New Orleans jazz, with set solo routines and rehearsed closing cadences along with the loose, contrapuntal improvs of Crescent City tradition.
Many of the players sport impressive credits, and the band is anchored by a veteran master of the forgotten art of jazz banjo, musical director Eddy Davis, who kept the rhythm jumping. The solos were of variable quality, but occasionally they could strike fire — particularly some crackling work by Australian trumpeter Simon Wettenhall and outbreaks of fancy stride piano by Zambian-born Conal Fowkes.
Their huge repertoire ranged all over the old-timey spectrum, with frequent incursions into gospel (“Over in the Glory Land,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Down by the Riverside”), a tune Bob Wills put his stamp on (“Corrine, Corrina”) and novelties like “Aba Daba Honeymoon.” No tune was too humble or homely for them — even “Home, Sweet Home” or “Listen to the Mocking Bird.”
Allen remains a throwback to an older style of jazz clarinet playing — punching out the notes, peppering his passages with smears and other rubbery comic effects.
On this night, though, he seemed to be having problems with his reeds or perhaps battling an instrument malfunction; with a buzzing tone in the lower register, he sounded as if he was overblowing too much. Oddly enough, he had more success with the faster tunes in the upper register.
Happily, Allen still has the enthusiasm of an amateur in the best sense. When the band came back for encores, Allen stretched the set well beyond the announced 90 minutes, striking up tune after tune after tune, even getting off his best solo of the night.
At the end, he unloaded a line that could only have come from the self-mocking character he created: “You can finally decide for yourself whether my movies are worse or my clarinet playing!”