By Don Heckman
lt usually takes a while before a performer can generate enough dynamic energy to begin to steal the show. But at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night, the opening act – Brazilian pianist/singer Eliane Elias – claimed a large chunk of the evening’s creative territory before her relatively brief half hour set was concluded.
That’s not to minimize the effectiveness of the other major musical acts on the bill: the duo of guitarist Lee Ritenour and keyboardist/composer Dave Grusin (and their band); and veteran rock star Boz Scaggs.
And we’ll get to them. But let’s get back to Eliane.
I first heard her three decades ago at Catalina Bar & Grill. Barely into her twenties, she was not a singing performer at the time. Her emphasis was on her jazz piano work, which was extraordinary. I can still recall a stunning, piano solo rendering of “Body and Soul” that breathed remarkable new creative life into an often overdone standard.
In the intervening years, Eliane added vocals to her arsenal of musical skills, as well as a warmly engaging performance style that invited her listeners into the intimacy of her playing.
As she did at the Bowl on Wednesday.
Backed by the sterling rhythm of guitarist Graham Dechter, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Rafael Barata, Eliane cruised with masterful ease from the classic bossa nova at her roots to the jazz that has become an equally vital element in her musical artistry. Her singing on Brazilian classics such as “Chega de Saudade” was balanced perfectly by her interpretations of standards from the American songbook – notably “And I Thought About You” from her memorable album tribute to Chet Baker.
And her piano work, driven by irresistible musical spontaneity, charged the enthusiastic audience with excitement, building to a climactic sequence of robust exchanges with drummer Barata.
As I noted above, everything Eliane did, from beginning to end was enough to establish her set as the most singular event, the centerpiece of a high intensity musical evening.
Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin
Ritenour and Grusin sustained much of Eliane’s jazz excitement when they dug into their set, a rapid fire sequence of works. Backed by the potent rhythm section of bassist Abraham Laboriel and drummer Chris Coleman, the two leaders focused most of the music on the fusion, funk and smooth jazz that has enlivened much of Ritenour’s busy career. And let’s not overlook the melodic appeal of Grusin’s compositions, as well as the spontaneous arrangements that he brought to many of the tunes via his line up of electronic keyboards.
Add to that the always entertaining presence of bassist Laboriel, who danced, hummed and snapped his electric instrument with non-stop verve, enhancing virtually every tune with injections of his unique, high velocity style.
The Ritenour/Grusin set finished with a surprising climax – a rendering of “Happy Birthday” to acknowledgment of Grusin’s recent 80th birthday, which took place on June 26. Appropriately, Grusin was the principal soloist in the performance, offering a delightfully imaginative set of variations to underscore his own birthday celebration.
The final set of the evening featured the veteran rocker, guitarist and singer/songwriter Boz Scaggs. Although he, too, celebrated a birthday in June (his 70th), there was no repeat offering of “Happy Birthday.”
Scaggs instead laid down a familiar line up of hits from the ’70s and ’80s, some written by Scaggs, some by others, among them: “What Can I Say?” “Miss Sun,” “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle.”
The most appealing part of the set reached beyond the tunes, into Scaggs’ sheer pleasure in what he was doing. Playing impressive rock guitar from time to time, he and his band recalled the sheer foot-tapping, body-moving pleasures of ’70s and ’80s rock. And the high point arrived at the close in a joyously spirited duet between Scaggs and his back up singer, Conesha Owens.
Vastly different from what Eliane Elias had offered, Scaggs nonetheless clearly delighted the many who had come to the Bowl to hear him recall the music of their youth.
And for those whose view of jazz is illuminated by funk, fusion and smooth jazz, Ritenour and Grusin also provided plenty of musical highlights.
Finally, recalling the program’s extraordinary opening set, with its authentic blending of jazz and Brazilian music, the only element missing from this eclectic musical evening was an additional half hour of music from Eliane Elias and her players. Maybe next time.