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This is, essentially, Woody Allen’s band, without Woody. It’s the only seven-piece New Orleans-style jazz band with a steady gig in New York. And if you like traditional jazz, this band—co-led by Simon Wettenhall and Conal Fowlkes—is not to be missed.

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by Chip Deffaa, Editor-at-Larger

A friend and I took our seats—front-row center, always my favorite place to be—at Birdland Theater. The seven musicians took the stage.   Trumpeter Simon Wettenhall led the  band into their opening number, “Come on and Stomp Stomp Stomp,” a Fats Waller composition that Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers first recorded in 1927.  And the sound that hit me was just glorious.  

First off, I loved that fat, rich, well-rounded tone of Wettenhall’strumpet—hitting me right smack in the face. (It’s one thing to listen to a recording in your home; it’s a greater, much more intense and rewarding experience to hear the music being created “live,” so close to you that you feel like you are a part of it.)   His attack was sure and vigorous.  

For my money—and of course, this is highly subjective; we each have our own preferences–there isn’t a better trumpeter than Wettenhall working today in the field of New Orleans-style jazz.  I like that forthright, ringing tone of his; I like his way of improvising on a melody; and I like the way he blends with the others.  He expressed himself well, whether playing open horn or making good use of his mutes.

The band—billed as the High Society New Orleans Jazz Band, co-led by Wettenhall and Grammy winner Conal Fowlkes (piano)–has an appealingly organic feel.  They are not reading music; they do not use any written charts; and they living and breathing as one.  The group has a terrific ensemble sound and great sense of dynamics.  They can instinctively all get softer together, projecting a sense of pent-up energy.  And when they eventually take it home—the energy bursting out, relieving the tension that’s built upit’s the way this kind of music was meant to be played.

They play the kind of music played by New Orleans musicians in the 1920s, and by revivalists in the 1940s, with the same sort of instrumentation.  They honor the memories of musicians like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, and more. They play numbers those artists liked to play. But they are not copying specific recordings; they are not offering note-for-note recreations.  They are making their own music, their own way, in a spirit of collective improvisation that has its roots in New Orleans.  

Fowlkes, on piano, can improvise with irresistible verve on a 1920s melody in a way that is fresh and imaginative, and yet has a wholly appropriate period feel.  Kevin Dorn’s drumming helps provide a most welcome, satisfyingly solid foundation for the band—something often  missing from vintage  recordings of this sort of music due to the limitations of early  recording technology.  

These seven musicians, coming from all different places—Wettenhall, for example, was born in Australia; Fowlkes was born in Zambia—are united by their love of this music.  It’s a good working band. They’re building upon, and adding to, a venerable and worthy musical tradition.  

At the set I caught, they played such early jazz favorites as  “Sweet Substitute,” “Kansas City Stomps,” “Blues My Naught Sweetie Gives to Me,” and “Shine.”  They played the hymn ”Just a Closer Walk with Thee” slowly, movingly at first (the way a New Orleans band might play it on the march to a graveyard), then picked up the tempo (suggesting the brisker way a New Orleans band might play such a number on the march back home, after a burial).   Conal Fowlkes sang “Girl of My Dreams,” a quality 1920s pop song written by Sunny Clapp, that was recorded over the years by everyone from Seger Ellis (who talked with me about it, late in his life when I interviewed him in a Texas nursing home) to Gene Austin, to Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Band, to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  Fowlkes and that song were a good fit.  And I personally got a great kick out of hearing the band have fun playing and singing “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream.”  (I sang that song, joined by Lawson and Logan Saby, on my album “Chip Deffaa’sTin Pan Alley”; as a kid I learned that song, including lots of extra choruses, from my mom, who said it was the earliest song she remembered learning and singing with her sisters as a little kid when the song first came out in 1927.)  

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One of the great joys of New York nightlife is thatin one place or another, if you know where to look–you can hear seemingly any kind of music, in any style, from any era.   I am very glad that Gianni Valenti–who has long run Birdland Jazz Club, one of New York’s most important nightspots—has hired the High Society New Orleans Jazz Band for this open-ended residency.  They play Thursdays at 5:30 pm, downstairs at Birdland.  (If you want to have dinner, you can get a hamburger and fries for$20.00.)  It’s an intimate room; there isn’t a bad seat in the house.  

This is the only seven-piece New Orleansstyle jazz band with a steady gig in NYC. The players are specialists in the idiom.  And a band that works regularly develops a cohesiveness and a sense of identity that a pickup band put together for a single gig cannot.  If you like traditional jazz, this band is not to be missed.

In addition to co-leaders Wettenhall and Fowlkes, the band includes  Brian Nalepka (bass), Kevin Dorn (drums), Josh Dunn (banjo and guitar),  Harvey Tibbs (trombone), and Tom Abbott (clarinet). It’s a good band.  If I had the budget, I’d hire the whole band to play on some of the albums I produce.  (Full disclosure: Bassist Nalepka has played on some of my recordings.)

This is essentially Woody Allen’s jazz band, without Woody. Woody Allen has worked with these musicians in concert and club appearances, in films, and so on. (Both Wettenhall and Fowlkes have been associated with Allen for more than 20 years.) Band members have appeared in and provided music for Allen movies like “Wild Man Blues,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Cafe Society,” “Magic in the Moonlight,” and “A Rainy Day in New York.” (One fun fact:  In Allen’s Academy Award-winning film “Midnight in Paris,” it was Conal Fowlkes who provided both the voice and the piano-playing of “Cole Porter”; and the soundtrack album for the film won a Grammy.)   These seven musicians know well the vintage hot jazz, blues, stomps, and spirituals they love to play.

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A bit of background may be in order here, since not everyone knows of Woody Allen’s jazz work.  For five decades—up until the pandemic shut down all nightlife in New York City in March of 2020—filmmaker  Woody Allen could be found most Monday nights leading his seven-piece New Orleans-style jazz band in a New York club.  For the first 25 years, beginning in 1971, the band’s base was the supper club Michael’s Pub, run by Gil Wiest. And I loved seeing the band there.

I realized just how committed Woody was to the music when he skipped attending the Oscars one year (even though he was nominated); he chose instead to stay in New York and play, as he usually did each week for a quarter-century, at Michael’s Pub.

After Michael’s Pub closed, Woody’s band found a new base at the Café Carlyle. He began playing Monday nights at the Carlyle in 1997, and kept playing there until the pandemic put a stop to all nightlife in 2020.  At the Carlye, Woody Allen continued the policy he’d always had–the gig was not advertised or publicized, reviewers were not solicited; the band relied  on word of mouth for its following. And for year after year, audiences came and enjoyed New York’s best-kept secret. The band always did tremendous business.

I very much enjoyed the band, and wrote about it with deepappreciation. I interviewed Woody at great length–one of the best interviews I had in my life. And we talked only about music–his influences, his goals, the players he admired, and why making music was so important to him. (My lengthy profile of Woody, published in “The Mississippi Rag,” was the only one I’ve ever seen by anyone that dealt solely with Woody and jazz.) He could be self-deprecating concerning his musicianship, suggesting he didn’t think that he was much of a musician.  But there was real artistry and individuality in his music, no less than in his films (which I like very much); he was an intriguingly idiosyncratic player, and an expressive one.  He played with feeling.

For 35 years, my friend Eddy Davis was a key member of Woody’s band, functioning as a kind of straw boss, managing the outfit. (Eddy had a great career of his own, apart from Woody–I profiled Eddy in my book “Traditionalists and Revivalists in Jazz”–but I think his most important work was with Woody.  Woody brought out the best in him. And Eddy made sure the band stayed in operation, taking care of business for Woody Allen.)  

At his apartment one afternoon, Eddy Davis played for me live tapes that he had of Woody and the band. With Eddy’s blessing, I borrowed some of the tapes, and set up a meeting with a record executive I knew, saying the band was too good not to have a CD. That record executive did not even realize Woody had a band, much less one that deserved to be on CD. I don’t think anything came of that particular meeting, but I was determined to do what I could to get people in the record business thinking about the band.

Eventually, the band released one CD, which captured them well. (That wasn’t because of me, but I tried to do what I could to stir up interest in the band.) I can’t recall if there ever was a second CD, although there was certainly talk of doing one. I felt there should be a whole series of CDs, because Woody’s band had developed its own personality and repertoire. And it’d take a number of CD’s to document it properly.  

On his Monday night gig, Woody would play whatever he liked—often numbers associated with old-time musicians he appreciated, like Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dunn, George Lewis… But his tastes were wonderfully eclectic. He might also offer, for example, Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht’s “Bilbao Moon” (not a traditional New Orleans number by any means) simply because he responded (as I do) to the dark beauty and drama of Weill’s music.

Most record execs (and most music critics, for that matter) probably don’t even realize Woody has had a band. They do not listen, in their spare time, to the musicians Woody admires and has drawn inspiration from; they’re more interested in what sells most today. If I mentioned that filmmaker/comedian Woody Allen had a band, they seemed to assume that that must be some kind of a novelty act, something Woody dabbled in on the side.  But Woody and his cohorts have long connected with their audiences.  They’ve produced good work.  And they’ve always been serious about their work, playing with commitment.

The pandemic shut down all nightspots in NYC in March of 2020.  And then Eddy Davis, who’d long played such a vital role in sustaining and handling the band, died of Covid in April 2020. (He was the first friend of mine to die from Covid.) I wondered if we’d ever hear the band again.  By this point, Woody was up in his 80s.  And with passing of Eddy Davis, who’d done so much to keep the band working, I wondered if Woody Allen would ever return to playing with his band every week.  

Then in 2023, Allen reassembled the band for a major European tour.  With  Wettenhall  on trumpet, Fowlkes on piano, Nalepka on bass, Kevin Dorn on drums,  Jerry Zigmont on trombone, and Josh Dunn on banjo and guitar, Allen played important venues in Milan, Athens, Lisbon, Paris, Rome, and other cities.  This marked the end of the longest hiatus in Allen’s musical career.  I hoped that when the tour ended, Allen might resume making weekly appearances with his band somewhere in New YorkCity.  But that hasn’t happened.  Allen has made no further public appearances as a musician since his 2023 European tour ended.  And that’s a pity.  He has a lot to offer, and I hope he’ll someday return to making regular appearances with his band in New York, or at least make occasional “special-event” kind of appearances with his band.

But his musicians are carrying on.  And I’m very glad for that.  The band is well worth hearing in its own right. (And its co-leaders, Wettenhall and Fowlkes, who have long deserved greater recognition, may get some of that,  leading their own band.)  

And Birdland gives the band prominent exposure right in the heart of New York City.  The club–on 44th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue—is easily accessible by public transportation.    And this band  will make new fans here.   Birdland is a popular destination for jazz buffs, and much easier to get to than some of the venues where members of this band might periodically appear in smaller groups, such as St. Mazie’s in Brooklyn or Mona’s Bar in the East Village.  

Birdland offers a great variety in music, with all sorts of  bands at different times, on two floors.  Patrons who go to Birdland to see, say, Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks on a Monday or Dave Ostwald’s Gully Low Band on a Wednesday, might notice  the High Society New Orleans Jazz Band listed on the Birdland calendar and decide to check it out some Thursday.  And I think they’ll like what they hear.

Incidentally, I was happy to see some young patrons in the audience, too (like one teenage trumpeter/jazz buff I talked to), who would not be found at a late-night gig at some out-of-the-way joint; but were enjoying a family outing to catch this band’s dinner set at Birdland.

I had a very good time.  If my schedule permitted, I’d be back to catch the band again this week.  My only reservation—and this simply reflects my own personal preferences—was that I might have preferred one more instrumental and one less vocal.  I enjoyed everything they did, but I think they made their strongest, most distinctive statements instrumentally.  They offered five vocal numbers in the set.  I might have preferred a bit more playing, simply because I was enjoying so much hearing that whole band cooking together on the hot jazz numbers, and because I would have liked to hear a bit more of what the individuals had to say instrumentally.  That’s just my preference for instrumentals over vocals, as a lover of this kind of hot jazz.

I hope the band will make some albums. They’d be a perfect fit for any label that distributes traditional jazz, like, say, Arbors Records (run by Rachel Domber) or Nagel-Heyer Records (founded by Hans and Sabine Nagel-Heyer).  Or they could simply put out albums on their own.  Some of the patrons coming to catch the band at Birdland will want to pick up a CD by the musicians they’ve just seen “live.”  

 Individual members of the band may be heard, at present, on lots of different albums; Fowlkes, for example,  has been on more than 35 albums with others.  But this particular band is so strong, it needs to do some recording on its own, either “live” at Birdland (and I think “live at a Birdland” has a nice ring to it, for an album title) or anywhere they might choose to record.  I’d certainly enjoy hearing an album by this band.

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