Woody Allen Takes Manhattan

There's a Woody Allen quite different from the one we've seen in films since the 1960s, and to discover this Woody Allen you need to be in Manhattan on a Monday evening.

Then Woody Allen the jazz clarinetist regularly performs with his New Orleans Jazz Band at the Carlyle Hotel. He's publicly performed in Manhattan on Mondays for a quarter century, and the music created, which is just now attracting worldwide attention, would be worthy of attention even if a star like Allen weren't involved.

Allen the jazz fan has been richly evident in his film soundtracks, where classic tunes by Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins have been showcased. When Allen portrayed the love-sick hero of his film "Manhattan" (1979), perhaps a thinly veiled portrait of himself, he cataloged reasons that made life worth living, with the recording of "Potato Head Blues" by Louis Armstrong making the list.

Influenced chiefly by traditional New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis, Allen and his band - consisting of musical director and banjo player Eddy Davis, trombonist Jerry Zigmont, drummer Rob Garcia, bassist Greg Cohen, trumpeter Simon Wettenhall, and pianist Cynthia Sayer - perform a tremendously entertaining range of pop and jazz standards from a half century ago.

Yet it would be wrong to consider Allen's band as a retro outfit steeped in nostalgia. What they communicate is a rowdy, loose, primitive sensibility that has less to do with re-creating Dixieland jazz and more to do with projecting a modern Manhattan form of New Orleans jazz (the rhythm is more Times Square than Congo Square), played with emotional brio.

A hint of this flavor, unfortunately only a faint suggestion, can be derived from listening to the only commercially available recording of an earlier version of Allen's on the disc "The Bunk Project" (MusicMasters). Seeing the band in concert permits a clear perception of the group's winning and unique chemistry.

Allen plays clarinet like an inspired amateur; he's limited technically, subject to faulty intonation and a reliance upon stock phrases. But he has enormous energy and charm. The six other band members are highly skilled technicians - yet Allen's clarinet playing draws out, in the best sense, their nonprofessional (quirkily imperfect) selves. So when wrong notes are hit, or entrances missed, the fluffs are forgotten because the overall spirit of the ensemble is so ebullient.

A set recently heard at the Carlyle included chestnuts like "St. Louis Blues" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." Most surprising, and not typically heard from a New Orleans-style jazz band emphasizing up-tempo numbers, was "September Song," played as a touching duet, with Davis on banjo and vocals and Allen on clarinet.

If you're not in Manhattan on Mondays, you may soon have another way to savor Allen's band. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple has created "Wild Man Blues," a two-hour documentary of the band during their first European tour in 1996, set for release in April.

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