By Don Heckman
Maybe the drops of rain that were scattering across the seats at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night should have been a warning. Not that we were going to be driven away by a rare July thunderstorm. No. Although a few sprinkles persisted, there was no significant rainfall.
But there was a program coming on stage under the heading of the Bowl’s first jazz event for the 2013 season. And the featured artists – soul, funk and r & b vibraphonist Roy Ayers and pop, rap, film and television star Queen Latifah – seemed almost as unlikely on a jazz program as a sprinkling of rain at the Bowl.
That’s not to say one couldn’t make a case for Ayers as a jazz artist. With a career reaching back to the early ‘70s, he established himself as a convincing post-bop improviser who was musically receptive to the many new ideas reaching from funk and rap to house music and acid jazz.
On his Wednesday night Bowl appearance, he touched on most of those areas, doing so with high spirits and a string of powerful rhythmic grooves. His 40 minute set included such familiar Ayers tunes as “No Strangers To Love,” “Runnin’ Away” and “Evolution.” In total, however, his presentation appropriately set the stage for Latifah with an entertaining musical attitude that came far closer to instrumental pop than it was to jazz.
Queen Latifah’s approach was musically broader, despite the almost complete emphasis upon her singing. Early in her program, she identified her presence on a jazz program as another one of the “crazy things I’ve decided to try.” But, to her credit, she chose not to emphasize her modest jazz skills, instead presenting a menu of songs embracing rap, blues, pop and more.
Latifah was at her best when she kept it simple, with familiar songs such as Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You,” Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Quiet Nights” (“Corcovado”), Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and Johnny Mercer’s “Travelin’ Light.”
And, interestingly, the most appealing moments in her set took place at its end, when she was joined by the delightfully enthusiastic backing of the Soul Children of Chicago in an energetic romp through “I Know Where I’ve Been” (from Hairspray).
Did the presence of Latifah and Ayers as the headliners on the Bowl’s opening jazz program make sense? Only in the quest to fill as many of the Bowl’s seats as possible. But the jazz world in general, and Los Angeles specifically, are overflowing with gifted jazz artists. Including some who have the potential to sell as many tickets as Latifah and Ayers did.
And even if they don’t, one can only hope that the L.A. Phil’s future jazz programming decisions will aim to provide the same musical authenticity that is an essential aspect of the classical music programs.
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Photos by Faith Frenz.