WOODY ALLEN & his New Orleans Jazz Band
at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall

Woody Allen does not come to California very often. Everyone knows he's not a California-phile. When his character Alvy Singer in "Annie Hall" said something like "Why would I live in Los Angeles where the only cultural advantage is one can turn right on a red light," surely, that was Allen speaking. Not even his acceptance of an Academy Award for Best Direction in "Annie Hall" could draw him to the West Coast - that ceremony happened on a Monday, and there was no way he would skip his Monday night gig playing the clarinet with his band for the thrill of holding Oscar in his hand.

But last December he came, presumably gladly, with his New Orleans Jazz Band - to play at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's newly inaugurated Concert Hall under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. It was the group's first multi-city tour of the West and Florida.  Perhaps he has mellowed after all these years (isn't he now a septuagenarian?), or perhaps his love for the clarinet is such that it overpowers his phobia(s)? Whatever - those who came to see and hear him play, ourselves included, were just too glad to experience that facet of Allen they had only heard of or seen in snippets on film.

This was not the group's first tour. That happened almost a decade ago when Allen took the band across Europe where - not surprisingly because he is more beloved there than in his native land - he played to adulating audiences.  Highlights of that tour were captured on tape, available on VIDEO and AUDIO as "Wild Man Blues." The Orange County audience may not have been as adoring, but there was no mistaking they were having a good time - from the moment the 6-man band trooped single-file into the hall clad in casuals, Allen in his trademark baggy khaki and a pull-over sweater which he removed in mid-performance - pulled over his head and folded on his lap during a break for the clarinet, then rolled up his sleeves - unmindful that such an action could be temporarily distracting. But perhaps that's the way it goes with jazz - improvisation rules, and this was after all a jam session.

So, WOODY ALLEN, the MUSICIAN - is he any good? Not being connoisseurs of jazz and more familiar with the sound of the clarinet as symphonic instrument, we are not eager to pronounce judgment, nor should we.  Clearly he is no Benny Goodman, as there were sounds of perhaps minor imperfection even to our untrained ears. But just as clearly, he could hold his own in this band of professionally-trained musicians (himself being the exception in this regard) who gave all they had so the audience could have as much as they in fact had.  The hall may not have been filled to the rafters, but the band played to an almost full house.

Allen addressed the audience briefly after a couple of tunes, saying that they would play for an hour (from an unannounced program of songs the order of which, in the manner of jazz, was decided as they played), then let's see what happens after that - said like a true jazz man. They played about two dozen tunes to the audience's delight, many humming and jamming along, bouncing their feet as Woody, rapt in his music, bounced his left foot almost non-stop - especially as they played such familiar songs as: By the Light of the Silvery Moon, You Are My Sunshine, Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Would You Like to Swing on a Star?

An hour to the minute later, the band took their bows as the audience clamored for encores. They happily acquiesced, but first Woody cracked a couple of jokes as he introduced the band members: EDDY DAVIS (banjo and Musical Director), CONAL FOWKES (piano), SIMON WETTENHALL (trumpet), JERRY ZIGMONT (trombone), JOHN GILL (drums), and GREG COHEN (bass), along with a guest musician whose name we did not catch, who joined the band during the encores. They delivered almost another full program of songs, wrapping up about a half hour later with "We'll Meet Again."  And for that to happen, Allen quipped as the band bade their goodbyes, "You'd have to come to New York."  

The audience may have wanted more light-hearted banter from Allen that evening, but perhaps Woody Allen, the comic and raconteur, purposely does not inhabit Woody Allen, the musician in performance. He is there to entertain himself and the audience solely through the music.  One thing is sure though, the audience left the hall that evening happier than when they went in, charmed by the music-making of this unpretentious band of older men, perhaps enough for some of them to want to "meet again" in New York at The Carlyle, the posh landmark Manhattan hotel where Woody and his band play every Monday night without fail - unless of course they are on tour somewhere in (his perhaps now slightly beloved?) California.




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