By Don Heckman
When singer Madeleine Peyroux opened Wednesday night’s jazz show at the Hollywood Bowl there was at least a mild sense of actual jazz in the air. Peyroux has had considerable success in the jazz world, even though she has ranged across different genres with varying degrees of success.
A far more powerful jazz vibe followed with the arrival of the Preservation Jazz Band, with its deep roots in traditional New Orleans jazz and an impressive ability to mix dynamic jazz rhythms with engaging jazz vocals.
So far, so good, creating an authentic link to the music one expects to hear in the Bowl’s Wednesday night jazz shows.
But the climactic set of the night made it very clear that the real orientation of the Wednesday series is broader than jazz, and perhaps best viewed as a far-ranging evening of American music in many forms.
Which only partially describes what happened when Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the North Carolina- based Steep Canyon Rangers. Martin, of course, has had a hugely successful career as a comedian, actor and TV star. But his occasional appearances over the years as a banjoist gradually made it clear that he was a serious musician as well. And improving with each banjo-playing performance.
It was no surprise that Martin sprinkled his performing passages with numerous examples of his whimsical, and often bizarre humor. And given the audience’s ebullient responses, it was easy to sense that many had been drawn to this Bowl program by Martin’s presence rather than the potential to hear some prime jazz.
Still, there was no faulting the empathic musical interaction between Martin and the Rangers, with the frequent addition of Brickell’s soaring vocals. And, listening to the irresistible rhythmic swing of the blue grass rhythms and the imaginative melody-making,something that possessed qualities very close to jazz began to seem present in the air.
The jazz heads in the crowd may have hoped for a more predictable mainstream jazz event, with more performance time for the inimitable Preservation Band. But what they experienced was even more fascinating, as Martin, the Rangers and the Preservation Hall musicians presented a consistently compelling presentation of the musical dialect – via improvisation and rhythmic propulsion – that is the common expressive language of so much American music. Call it a fascinating evening of musical Americana at its best.
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Preservation Hall Band photo by Bonnie Perkinson
All other photos by Faith Frenz