Woody Allen famously said, “80 per cent of success is showing up,” and on Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall the audience did just that. Almost every seat was taken, and they greeted him and his band with enthusiastic applause, especially when they heard his first words: “I didn’t vote for him!”
He’d been typically self-effacing in the run-up to the show, calling himself a dreadful musician when he was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. On Sunday, he likewise overplayed his modesty with his trademark comically nebbish delivery, and I suspect much of the audience were half-hoping he would carry on with the stand-up. But this night was all about the music of New Orleans, the trad and Dixie jazz that so often features in his films.
Devotees of New Orleans jazz know that a young Louis Armstrong worked for the Karnofsky family who owned a Jewish dry goods store in the city and, in return for his work, Papa Karnofsky bought the young Louis his first bugle. The Jewish story of New Orleans Jazz largely stopped there until Woody Allen took to the stage. For the first two numbers it was almost as if a frustrated klezmer musician was attempting to ornament the fluid bounce of traditional jazz with the klezmer’s characteristic Jewish, weeping clarinet ornamentations. The effect brought to mind the frustrated Yiddishe parents in Allen’s movies, trying to assimilate into the American dream. There were, however a few reed malfunctions from Allen, which meant it took a couple of numbers to get swinging. By the third number, Allen and his clarinet were sitting comfortably alongside the trumpet and trombone to provide a well-textured swing through marches, spirituals and bluesy laments all raucously adapted with muted trumpet solos and vibrato trombone. Allen’s band are of the highest calibre, including bassist Greg Cohen best known for his work with the John Zorn’s Masada quartet, which set out to redefine Jewish music in the 1990s.
The band made a musical journey around the southern states of the US with a one-song visit to Puerto Rico. Allen reminisced about a Goon Show sketch, in which the Royal Albert Hall had been stolen. This time Woody Allen was the thief.