CLEARWATER — In jazz, there is freedom: to riff, to ramble, to unload all that agitated energy coursing through, say, a nervous, nebbishy cut-up from Brooklyn.
Without music, Woody Allen's bespectacled head might have exploded by now.
Long before he was a writer for Sid Caesar, long before he was the acclaimed director of Annie Hall, the twitchy ball of angst born Allan Stewart Konigsberg was a jazz fan. And for the past four decades, in between his prolific day job as one of the sharpest comic minds in ha-ha history, Allen has gigged in a band, his shows at the Carlyle Hotel entrenched in New York City lore.
Not that he's any good at playing jazz, a talent depletion he's the first to recognize. But hey, this is a guy who desperately needs to relax, and making a squawk on his trusty clarinet apparently does the trick.
On Wednesday, the 76-year-old Allen and the seven-piece Eddy Davis Band were on the move, playing a road show at Ruth Eckerd Hall, which was filled with 1,189 film fanatics, music buffs and pop-culture lookie-loos on hand to gawk at the Wood-Man.
If people came expecting a whiff of Hollywood glamour — uh, no. Dressed in clunky shoes, frumpy khakis and a gray button-down shirt, Allen looked like a man waiting for a bus. And the spare stage was just as humble: a few chairs, a small platform, insurance-seminar lighting.
Taking even more air out of the event, Allen addressed the crowd: "Before today, I'd never heard of Clearwater, and now I love it." That got applause, then this got a laugh: "We're delighted when anyone is foolish enough to come out and see us. So sit back, relax and we'll do our best to be as authentic and passionate as possible."
And with that, for the next 105 minutes, they played rolling roadhouse jazz, rural river songs merging with the hot vibes of New Orleans circa the early 20th century, the Mississippi River meeting the red-light District of Storyville. This included jubilant songs like Emile Barnes' When You Wore a Tulip and Ben Bernie's Sweet Georgia Brown.
Allen took more solos than most of his cohorts, but he's a breathy, often screechy player far more comfortable blowing big notes than going for subtlety. But he surrounded himself with tremendous talents, including ever-smilin' bandleader and banjo picker Davis, who'd fit right in with the Country Bear Jamboree. Trombonist Gerry Zigmont and trumpeter Simon Wettenhall made for a playfully randy brass section, and the saloony style of piano player Conal Fowkes made me want to order whiskey for the house.
For all the talent on the stage, though, it was impossible to look away from Woody. When he'd play, his shoulders would hunch, his legs would cross and uncross, his foot would tap. When he took a break, he'd often stare forlornly into the abyss, not unlike Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. For a man so guarded, it all felt so intimate, so voyeuristic. When he blew his nose a few times, I almost wanted to look away in shame.
But I have to say, the highlight of the night came in the middle of a song, when Davis whispered something to Allen. And the star of the night cracked up. Soon the whole band was laughing. And when you see the most nervous man in the world lighten up for a second, really now, what is there to worry about?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay).