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Friends Gathered Around in Celebration of Bechet

The gig by the clarinetist Evan Christopher on Monday night took place in a theater, but the language of the show was house party. It was sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society, which since 1997 has promoted music associated with Bechet — which is to say New Orleans and Chicago jazz of the 1920s.

Enthusiasm and advocacy run high in the society, as they do in many of the small organizations that support early jazz. Many of its board members seemed to occupy the front rows of the theater — the Lucille Lortel, in the West Village — and talked to the band between numbers.

A Californian who moved to New Orleans in the mid-’90s, a working musician and part-time academic, Mr. Christopher has been striving to figure out the essence of musicians like Bechet (who died in 1959) not just through archives and recordings but also through performance.

As an improviser, he has lots of tools — equal facility in the full range of his instrument, switching in and out of triplet phrasing, storytelling and theme building. But what impresses you most about his solos is their immediacy. He has a thick tone with a hoarse edge, and he’ll often play a simple phrase with complicated emotion rather than vice versa; he’s not glib or lighthearted.

It’s strong stuff, so Ken Peplowski, a traditional-jazz clarinetist of a different sort, was his guest and foil. His style is lighter and quieter, more nuanced and more outwardly virtuosic; this worked well against and around Mr. Christopher’s playing.

The set kept up a double consciousness: recherch√© and gutbucket. It included Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee,” James P. Johnson’s “Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid,” Rodgers and Hart’s “Ship Without a Sail” and Tommy Ladnier’s “Mojo Blues” — the kind of list that only a scholar would put together. But then frontline entertainers in this music are scholars by definition.

Knowing your subject means knowing there’s more you can do with it. In “Apex Blues,” which Jimmy Noone recorded in 1929, Mr. Christopher began alone, bending notes softly, playing more like a saxophonist; Mr. Peplowski answered with big-leap intervals, and the stately song started moving. In Mr. Christopher’s second solo, a single bending note ran to nearly four bars; he finished the chorus with growls, slurs and flutters. The guitarist James Chirillo backed him with steady quarter-note rhythm played in resourceful, Jim Hall-like ways, then broke into a Chicago blues-style solo.

The band members — who also included the bassist Boots Maleson and the drummer Jackie Williams — talked back to the crowd and among themselves. Mr. Peplowski told stories about the long war of nerves between Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. And at one point Mr. Christopher talked about why he started playing the clarinet. “I blame Artie Shaw,” he said. “I read his autobiography, and I knew I wanted to grow up to be a grumpy old man.”


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