Lots of style, little soul at Disney Hall

Special to The Times

The notes were in the right place Sunday night at Disney Hall. The music from Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” rendered in a jazz version arranged more than 40 years ago by John Williams and conducted by him Sunday, was played with crisp precision by an all-star big band. The Steve Houghton Quintet, featuring trumpeter Carl Saunders and alto saxophonist Gary Foster, provided highflying jazz solos. And singers Dianne Reeves and Brian Stokes Mitchell handled such signature numbers as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I’m an Ordinary Man.”

So why, despite all this firepower, was the evening so bland?

In part because of the vibrant original vocals by Jack Sheldon and Irene Kral on the 1964 recording of the same music. For this performance, Mitchell and Reeves sang well, individually, with Reeves’ unquestioned musicality and articulateness on full display. But as a duo -- especially on a number such as “The Rain in Spain” -- they simply couldn’t compare to the playful jazz authenticity of the Sheldon-Kral interpretation.


Add to that the fact that the music -- conceived by Williams and drummer Shelly Manne as a kind of concerto grosso featuring a jazz quintet with a big band -- was an uneven potpourri of melodic themes and phrases from the original “My Fair Lady” score.

Assembled in a style clearly influenced by the arranging of Bill Holman, it lacked any sort of compelling focus, alternating heated, attention-grabbing passages with segments of mind-wandering randomness. The best moments, in fact, were those in which the ensemble passages gave way to Saunders’ incredibly long-limbed solo lines and Foster’s warm inventiveness.

But the real question was how this program came about in the first place. Given the fact that large-ensemble jazz repertoire (unlike classical repertoire) is rarely heard at Disney, why devote an evening to a relatively obscure, decades-old project?

Is it because Williams’ name now possesses high visibility? And is that sufficient reason to choose a jazz “My Fair Lady” rather than a performance of music drawn from the long list of extraordinary jazz works for large ensemble -- by Duke Ellington, George Russell, Gil Evans/Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and Gerald Wilson, to name only a few of the obvious possibilities?