The Smithsonian Jazz Heritage Series began inauspiciously Saturday night with a sluggish and inept performance by Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. The potential of the ensemble is evident in the technical proficiency of its members and in the precision of its section work, but it did not swing or display the looseness and "feel" that are essential in jazz.
There were few feet tapping in the audience, and some even left before the conclusion of the second set, unheard of at Smithsonian jazz concerts, where the norm is a high level of excitement and standing ovations are common.
Two numbers, "Ding Dong Ding," onomatopoeic in title, and "Tip Toe," were self-conscious in their cleverness, lacking in emotional depth. "Que Pasa Bossa" did get nice counter-rhythms going with maracas, claves, and clappers, and the flag-waver "Cherry Juice" contained some good moments. Otherwise, the concert was characterized by slavish reading of the charts and missed cues.
It was only on the final number, "Fingers," that the band came to life briefly, inspired by the ardent, punched-out solo statement by tenor saxophonist Richie Perry, who combined a sensuous tonality with unwavering drive.
The Smithsonian Jazz Heritage Series resumes are Sunday , Nov. 25, with a concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago.