In his long overdue Twin Cities debut, Woody Allen wasn’t funny. Not really. That’s OK, though.
He wasn’t doing stand-up comedy or commenting on his many great films. He was playing traditional jazz with his New Orleans Jazz Band in front of nearly 2,000 people at the State Theatre on Sunday night.
New Orleans jazz is not likely to draw that many people on a humid Sunday evening in Minneapolis, even if the tickets are free.
“When anyone is foolish enough to pay to see us, we’re thrilled,” Allen said early in the evening.
OK, that self-deprecating comment was a little bit funny.
But, at age 79, Allen is dead serious about playing jazz. He was a clarinet student as a kid and a funny thing happened on his way to Preservation Hall. He discovered stand-up comedy and filmmaking. But jazz has always been part of his life — not just listening to it and featuring it in his movie soundtracks, but performing it. Since 1973, Allen has played New Orleans jazz with a combo nearly every Monday night in New York City. Tickets to see him at the Cafe Carlyle are $150.
In his 105 minutes onstage Sunday, Allen didn’t say much (unlike actor/banjoist Steve Martin, who yukked it between nearly every song when he brought his Grammy-winning bluegrass band in concert). Like a veteran actor, Allen played the part of the clarinetist in a seven-piece New Orleans traditional jazz ensemble. His shoulders were hunched, his left leg bouncing to the beat, his instrument bobbing up and down. If this were a movie, he would have received a rave review.
But this was a concert, and no one would mistake him for Sidney Bechet. At best, he’s an inspired amateur on clarinet. He’s earnest, studious and collaborative, with a strong a sense of rhythm, nice sense of timing and good instincts how to solo. What he lacks are steady volume, consistent emotionalism and a smooth, warm and knowing tone. Too many of his solos were screechy, squawky and squeally.
In short, he was the musical equivalent of a Sunday golfer.
But the weakest link was also the biggest draw. And there was an obvious sense of joy of these musicians playing together in this entertaining concert. The repertoire of mostly marches, blues, spirituals and hymns from the 1910s to 1930s was simple and direct stuff, unlike Allen’s complex and perplexing films. The selections were primarily instrumentals, though one of the musicians might sing a verse and chorus on a tune like “St. Louis Blues,” “Down by the Riverside” or “Easter Parade.”
As Allen does with his movies, he has a top-notch cast in his band. Beaming Jerry Zigmont was an aggressive trombonist, Simon Wettenhall an expressive trumpeter and Conal Fowkes a versatile and emotional pianist. The rhythm section of drummer John Gill and bassist Greg Cohen was solid. The banjo of bandleader Eddy Davis, an Ed Asner look-alike, was not loud enough while Zigmont’s trombone was too loud.
That sound imbalance was indicative of the band’s casualness. There was no planned set list (either Allen or Davis would call the next tune to the others), the musicians took off their suit coats mid-song, and Allen forgot to introduce his bandmates and returned to do so when they were offstage.
In many ways, Allen seemed the odd man out. When the others soloed, he looked like grandpa napping at the Scrabble table until his turn came. Then he relished playing his solos, just like the kid practicing back in Brooklyn, and afterward, he’d wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand and stared downward.
“Sing Woody,” shouted a man in the audience.
That comment got the night’s biggest laugh. But it didn’t get a rise — or a lyric — out of the clarinetist.