Woody Allen's clarinet playing, like his movies, can be an entertainment, an illumination or a bewilderment. And his performance at Royce Hall on Saturday night with his New Orleans Jazz Band included all those elements.
When he strolled on stage, wearing rumpled pants and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Allen still suggested the persona, nearly 30 years after "Annie Hall," of an Alvy Singer with a clarinet. But when he began to play, the warmly reminiscent visual image was replaced by a more problematic aural impression.
In the first few numbers, it was difficult to tell whether he was having reed problems, embouchure difficulties or simply taking a while to warm up. The sound of the clarinet is generated by a single reed mouthpiece, and both the relative stiffness of the reed and the flexibility of the player's mouth control can have a striking effect upon that sound.
The notes emanating from Allen's instrument suggested the kazoo-like characteristic often associated with a soft reed or an out-of-practice embouchure. In some phrases, the lack of sustained sound produced vibrato that was little more than a series of staccato notes. His bottom notes, in the clarinet's low register, had the sort of flabby, sharp-edged tone produced by young players in their first attempts at mastering the instrument.
Allen has demonstrated an impressive familiarity with the New Orleans style of clarinet that traces back to masters such as Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds and Buster Bailey. Although he has tended to view himself as a dedicated amateur, his talent and his long-term emergence in the music, combined with the opportunity to interact with excellent players, have produced some first-rate performances. His work in the concerts represented in the 1998 documentary "Wild Man Blues" clearly affirms that Allen is much more than a musical hobbyist.
And the odd part of his appearance at Royce was that -- despite the sometimes squawky quality of his tone -- the musical content of what he played was generally well-done. Although repeated passages in his solos tended to imply memorization rather than improvisation or, perhaps, a limited vocabulary of phrases and riffs, Allen played with an enthusiastic sense of swing and a convincing compatibility with New Orleans style. But he needs to give some serious consideration to what's going on with his sound -- either via his chops or his reeds.
Allen was ably supported by the New Orleans Jazz Band. Led by its musical director, banjoist-composer Eddy Davis, with trumpeter Simon Wettenhall, trombonist Jerry Zigmont, pianist Conal Fowkes, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer John Gill, the group is an assemblage of solid professionals. And it was their ease and familiarity with an array of music -- including "Alice Blue Gown," "Corinne, Corinna," "Cuddle Up a Little Closer," "The Old Rugged Cross," "Aba Daba Honeymoon" and "Ain't Gonna Study War No More" (which probably drew the most enthusiastic audience applause) -- that provided an attractive, appropriately atmospheric setting for Allen's playing.
Woody Allen and His New Orleans Jazz Band
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 tonight
Contact: (714) 556-2787