"I truly believe in reincarnation," said Doc Cheatham after one of Wynton Marsalis' solos Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
He was referring to a performance of "Dear Old Southland," recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1930 and miraculously brought to new life in the Marsalis rendition. Certain passages were re-created note for note; others elaborated on the original. Imitation justifies itself when it achieves a sense of spontaneous creation, and several times the 29-year-old chameleon made fresh magic out of what could have been cheap nostalgia.
Though he deserves credit both for his own work and for putting together this salute to Armstrong, Marsalis was one of three trumpeters who covered themselves with glory. Doc Cheatham, at 85 still a powerful standard bearer for the Satchmo legacy, won the hearts of the crowd singing and playing "A Kiss To Build A Dream On." Ruby Braff, backed by a group that included Howard Alden on guitar and Gerald Wiggins on piano, revealed a mastery of the horn's lower register along with an Armstrong-inspired approach to "Pennies From Heaven."
For much of the show a group from New Orleans, the Liberty Jazz Band, was on stage, complete with tuba and banjo, playing in a style common only to Armstrong's very early records. A re-creation of the All Stars, the band he led from 1947 on, would have been a fitting addition.
Also missing was any attempt to enlighten the audience about Armstrong's life. Except for a few anecdotes, nothing was said by emcee Ossie Davis about the musicians, the travels, the events, the movies, the trials and triumphs in the saga of this heroic figure. Davis, in fact, might as well not have been there; Marsalis knows the story well and should have incorporated a few details himself.
Another weakness was the singer with the Liberty Band, Thais Clark, who failed on all counts: intonation, projection and material; songs such as "Big Butter and Egg Man" and "You Rascal You" were worthless except for what Louis did with them. Clark was unable even to bring conviction to a blues--a startling negative achievement for a singer from New Orleans.
The second half stumbled as trumpeter Teddy Riley of the Liberty Band showed himself a little out of his depth on "Mahogany Hall Stomp." Clark Terry, surprisingly, sounded flat and disinterested, playing fluegelhorn and briefly singing a perfunctory Armstrong impression. Danny Barker, the band's 81-year-old banjo player, milked the crowd for laughs with a comedy version of "St. James' Infirmary."
Only Marsalis and Cheatham held to their high standards from beginning to end (Braff was not brought back for the second half). Nevertheless, even with its errors of omission and commission, this was an often inspiring evening based on the important premise that the Armstrong legend needs to be perpetuated by artists of every generation. Attendance was a healthy 15,061.