“Where’s the melody?” was one question listeners didn’t have to ask when the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band--an octet of 60- and 70-year-olds who have collectively worked with most of the notables of the Swing Era--wailed Tuesday at Smothers Theatre on Pepperdine’s Malibu campus, opening a four-night local tour.
Basing their improvisations as much on the songs themselves as on underlying harmonies, the band--Eddie Durham, trombone; Bobby Williams, trumpet; Eddie Chamblee, tenor sax; Al Casey, guitar; Bross Townsend, piano; Johnny Williams, bass; Wes Landers, drums and Laurel Watson, vocals--issued one swinging statement after another, all set to effective, foot-tapping rhythm.
The opening “C Jam Blues” led to a solid, “I Found a New Baby,” typical of the group’s spirited, if somewhat stylistically repetitive, renditions. Here, Durham began his solo with a sweeping, smeared-note slide, displaying his thick, creamy sound, then employed the plunger mute to achieve a jubilant wah-wah affect. Bobby Williams, getting a buzzy tone a la Roy Eldridge, issued simple, succinct ideas, while Chamblee worked with a rich, throbbing quality that recalled the heartiness of Coleman Hawkins.
Casey, the most modern member of the ensemble, emulated Charlie Christian for a moment, then hit bluesy, twisting phrases that were almost boppish. Townsend’s outing was marked by his use of rolling, locked-hands tremolo.
“Georgia on My Mind,” where Bobby Williams and Durham tossed more wah-wah passages back and forth, and Casey’s feature on “Buck Jumpin’ ” were other highlights.
Watson’s strong voice and relaxed stage presence were a plus. “I’m Confessin’ ” led to “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” where--in a single phrase--she went from high, squeezed notes to deep, breathy tones, at points accompanied by a comical muted solo by Durham. Her “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” was amiably upbeat.