Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band: Hammersmith Apollo, London

ON THE FACE of it, Woody Allen and old New Orleans-style jazz have slightly less in common than chalk and cheese. Knowing Allen, he has probably worried over this very point with his therapist.

But, odd as it may appear, for the past 30 years the filmic chronicler of neurotic New Yorkers has sat down every Monday night to play riotously unselfconscious antique jazz with a group of like-minded trad enthusiasts.

Currently on a short sabbatical from Manhattan’s Carlyle hotel, Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band have chosen to spend this holiday period touring Europe, and on Sunday they played a one-nighter at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

The venue did them no favours. Huddled together in the middle of a cavernous black stage with minimal lighting, no props and a tiny PA, the seven-piece band – all seated save for the double bassist – looked wholly out of place in one of the capital’s larger concert venues.

When Allen got up to assure the audience at the end of the first encore that “this is not a job for us” and that they weren’t in it for the money, you couldn’t help wondering why in that case they hadn’t elected to play a few nights in a small club such as Ronnie Scott’s or the 606, rather than let Harvey Goldsmith book them into a 3,500-seater.

The adoring capacity audience did their best to fill the space with warmth – clapping every solo and laughing wildly at Allen’s occasional announcements – but trad needs a degree of intimacy the Apollo simply doesn’t allow. Only at odd moments during the two-hour show did the band achieve lift-off.

They certainly played like a well-practised unit. The interplay between Jerry Zigmont’s trombone and Simon Wettenhall’s trumpet was slick and, on ‘Hot Tamale Man’, exhilarating. Perma-ginning banjo player Eddy Davis – introduced by Allen as “the heart and soul of the band” – drove things along with his lightning chord changes and supplied the most convincing vocals of the evening on the nostalgically charged ‘Old Bilbao Moon’. (Singing was not generally these middle-agers’ forte, as bassist Conal Fowkes demonstrated on a wobbly ‘White Cliffs of Dover’.)

Dressed in comfy brown cords and a light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Allen himself cut a professorial figure, often cradling his clarinet with his eyes closed, mouthing inaudibly.

As a soloist he sometimes lacked puff, but his curious honking style was always a distinctive presence. As a part-time bandleader, this guy, you felt, could almost give up his day job.

© Robert SandallDaily Telegraph, 21 December 2004

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