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The New York Jazz Ensemble "The Bunk Project" MusicMasters Jazz

August 05, 1993|RANDY LEWIS

For a bunch of players from New York, this ad hoc group does a pretty solid job of assaying New Orleans jazz circa the 1920s--especially the amateur clarinetist, a balding, bookish-looking guy with red hair and glasses.

Actually, no matter how well they played, this record probably would never have been released were it not for the participation of Woody Allen, who's been spending his Monday nights for the last couple of decades playing just this kind of stuff at Michael's Pub in Manhattan. But it's no ego-induced star turn--Allen really does function as just one member of this band assembled by banjo player Eddy Davis. The album gets its name from one of the great early New Orleans cornet players: Bunk Johnson. It was Johnson and his peers--players such as Sidney Bechet and George Lewis--who inspired Allen to try his hand as a jazz man.

It's not technically complicated music, but it can be emotionally rich. To play it correctly requires more heart than chops, and in that department, Allen is well suited to the task.

As a soloist, he's less assertive--to the point of sounding timid occasionally--than the other front-line players, trumpeters Simon Wettenhall and Peter Ecklund and trombonists Dan Barrett and Graham Stewart. But he has the right sound: his clarinet playing teeters on that edge between a cry and a squawk as the band moves from dirges to hymns to street-parade rave-ups.

When I saw Allen play at Michael's several years ago, I wondered how he could look so pained while playing music that's so joyful. Here, only in the final cut, "Weary Blues," does Allen sound like he's given himself over to the spirit of the music. Then again, that state of musical nirvana is something that amateur and professional alike struggle to achieve. As for the sonic quality, the sessions were recorded in what must have been a cavernous room at the Harkness House in New York with what sounds like a single microphone placed, at times, at the far end of that room. In other words, no audiophiles allowed. Like the music itself, it all but shouts: "Strictly for fun."

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