The subtitle of the Anderson twins’ splendid new revue, Le Jazz Hot, is How the French Saved Jazz. It derives from a comment that Quincy Jones made to them: “If it weren’t for France, jazz would be dead.”
Written and directed by Peter and Will Anderson, the theatrical entertainment combines music and fascinating commentary. As a visual accompaniment to their thesis, the brothers have unearthed old film clips and photographs of composers and performers who flourished in France. They include Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke, Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s no accident, of course, that most of the performers were black Americans; in Paris they found little of the racism they had to endure in the States.
The clips begin on a lighter note, however, with an amusing silent film from the early 20th century in which a cellist plants himself on a sidewalk and begins to play, but is pelted with vegetables and garbage. The twins' subtle point is, perhaps, that the subjects of their revue are going to get more respect.
The background on the music being played is interesting and informative, and frequently makes one want more. Who suspected that Baker was smuggling secret information to Portugal written on her music in invisible ink during World War II?
Less well known is a performer like Bechet, who went to Paris at 28 with La Revue Nègre and later headlined at Bricktop’s club. Bricktop, of course, made a brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, set in the French capital in the 1920s; Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” was featured on the soundtrack. The Andersons' quintet delivers a silky version that conjures the romantic atmosphere of Allen’s film.
The only scenery is a chalkboard on the wall that features the musicians’ names and their instruments — in French. Will and Peter are listed as playing anches (reeds), and there are a variety of saxophones and clarinets clustered around them; batterie is the word for Decker’s percussion, while the other instruments’ names are similar to English. In spite of the bilingual sign, Will issues a warning at the top of the show: “Musicians are not liable for mispronounced French words.” Luckily, the music does the speaking for the Andersons' colleagues: percussionist Luc Decker, bass player Clovis Nicolas and guitarist Alex Wintz.
If this sounds like a lecture with music on the side, it’s not. Although the brothers eagerly share information, there's plenty of jazz, and the atmosphere is intimate, as if Peter and Will were entertaining friends of their parents at a casual family gathering. The numbers include familiar tunes like Henri Betti’s “C’est Si Bon,” Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris,” Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” But there are more traditional jazz numbers, such as the lilting swing of Bechet’s “Promenade aux Champs-Élysées”; Reinhardt’s often-recorded “Nuages” and the swift scales of his “Rhythm Futur,” with a standout performance by Wintz; and the more pronounced percussion and uptempo of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Afro Paris,” with a clarinet solo by Will. On the mellower side is a swing version of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” played to a montage of scenes from the film The Red Balloon; in it, Wintz does another amazing solo as a group of children crowd around the balloon.
The revue includes a foray into Hollywood, with Duke Ellington’s music for the 1961 film Paris Blues, starring Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. The brothers play the alto and tenor sax on the music, and note the verisimilitude of the actors in portraying jazz musicians, although, Peter says, “Poitier had his mouthpiece on backwards.”
Oh! — that poor cellist in the silent film? After enduring tons of abuse, he is suddenly handed a bouquet by a woman. The Anderson twins deserve one, too, for their delightful show.
Le Jazz Hot will play through Dec. 29 at 59E59 Theaters on the following schedule: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8:30 p.m. on Friday; at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Saturday; 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $25 through Dec. 15 and $35 thereafter, through Dec. 29. There is no performance Dec. 25, and an additional performance at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 27. Tickets may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visiting www.59e59.org.