It took a decidedly unjazz-like conga line to bring back a glimmer of the old big-band excitement for Woody Herman's 50th anniversary celebration as a bandleader Wednesday night in Hollywood Bowl.
No matter. Herman's played weirder things than congas in his time, and there was an undeniable enthusiasm to the spontaneous dance line that snaked through the aisles--the kind of enthusiasm that has been the one consistent element in all the many editions of the Herman herds.
Onstage for virtually all of the three-hour program, Herman did precisely what he has always done best, cajoling, cheerleading, adding a clarinet flurry here, an alto sax smear there, never seeming to do very much, but in his own unassumingly mysterious way, bringing everything together.
Unfortunately, his efforts didn't produce the expected fireworks from an All-Star Herman Alumni Band. Playing with the passionless precision of the studio musicians they have all become, a group of well-known Los Angeles players managed to put all the notes in the right place and their hearts in deep freeze.
Herman classics like "The Good Earth" and "Blowin' Up a Storm" produced nary a wiggle in the seismographic needle. Curiously, it wasn't until the alumni launched into an off-the-top-of-the head version of Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" that the band came to life, largely because of the spectacular huffing, puffing, slipping and sliding of trombonist Buster Cooper.
Herman had better luck with the sophisticated music of father-and-daughter jazz team, Jimmy and Stacy Rowles. In the course of two brief ballads, "Old Folks" and "Passion Flower," the delicately filagreed interaction between Stacy's flugelhorn and her father's carefully framed piano accents managed to transform the vast stretches of the Bowl into the intimacy of a small after-hours club. Herman wisely stood by and savored the moment.
Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman appeared as featured clarinetist in a workman-like, but not particularly inspiring, run-through of Igor Stravinsky's dated-sounding "Ebony Concerto," a work composed for Herman in 1946.
Stoltzman's stunning skills were better displayed in brief performances of Debussy's "The Maid With the Flaxen Hair" and the third of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for solo clarinet. An impromptu jam between Stoltzman's and Herman's clarinets was more amiable than inspiring.
On the second half of the program, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval joined Herman's current band, the Young Thundering Herd. A star of the famous Four Brothers-dominated Second Herd, Getz showed little interest in past associations, and made several predictably articulate, but emotionally chilly excursions through the bossa nova rhythms that have dominated his work for the past two decades.
Sandoval, a fiery player with technique to burn, generated more heat. But, in his only strange choice of the evening, Herman elected to showcase the trumpeter in Ralph Burns' "Bijou," a piece that has been a trombone showcase since Bill Harris first played it in the mid-'40s. The result was musical schizophrenia.
The program's final moments with Herman's new young band revealed the old master in his proper milieu. Neither the best nor the worst of his many herds, the group nonetheless is clearly a Herman band, bubbling over with the youthful excitement and energy that Herman, at age 73, still inspires. After 50 years on the road, he shows few signs of slowing down. As he told the Bowl audience, "This is what I do . . . travel with a band."