By Devon Wendell
Many music purists and snobs might balk at the mere mention of Gloria Estefan and dismiss her as being just another celebrity pop-star. But Estefan proved to be a stellar musician with the chops, versatility, and stage presence of a great jazz singer at The Hollywood Bowl Saturday evening.
Estefan performed two sets consisting of her greatest hits and material from her 2013 Grammy nominated album The Standards featuring her own soulful twists on some of the most familiar standards from the American songbook.
Backed by a focused and subtle band featuring some of the greatest session musicians ( Shelton Berg: piano and musical director, Dean Parks: guitar, Carlos Puerto: bass, Ray Brinker: drums, Edwin Bonilla: percussion, Cynthia Medina and Socrates Perez on backing vocals and The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (Conducted by Thomas Wilkins). Estefan kicked off the festivities with “Good Morning Heartache,'” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and Jobim’s “Yo Se Te Voy A Amar.” Instead of dancing across the stage as she did over 30 years ago, Estefan stood poised, elegantly gripping the microphone like a true jazz crooner. Her voice has deepened with age in all the best ways. Her thick vibrato and dynamic phrasing fit these standards perfectly. The choice of material never sounded forced for one moment.
Actor Andy Garcia made a guest appearance, playing congas on a very sexy salsa reading of Gershwin’s “You Made Me Love You.” This was a highlight of the evening. Estefan’s smoky yet playful vocals jelled beautifully with the pure Latin jazz horn hooks and percussion delivered by Estefan’s band and The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Another program highlight was Estefan’s rendition of Fredrick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” dedicated to Estefan’s hubby of 36 years, Emillio. The band played at the level of a whisper. Berg’s stark and minimalistic piano accompaniment complimented every carefully delivered phrase and nuance by Estefan.
Estefan also played more mature,, jazzier versions of her biggest hits such as “Here We Are,” a slow, jazz-tinged arrangement of “Conga” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” giving the show a sense of continuity and focus.
On “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” Estefan was joined by The Youth Orchestra Of Los Angeles. These kids really knew how to swing hard, adding more excitement to the program.
Another guest was Estefan’s teenage daughter Emily, who played acoustic guitar and sang Neil Sedaka’s “Where The Boys Are” with her mom singing background vocals on this doo-wop ballad. Emily sounded a lot like her mother when she was starting out in the late ’70s with the Miami Sound Machine.
After a brief intermission, Estefan presented her second set which was more subdued, aside from her classic pop anthems “Bad Boy” and “1-2-3,” although her classic ballads “I Can’t Stay Away From You,” “Don’t Want To Lose You Now” and “Anything For You” had a sad and haunting feel to them. The lyrics felt more sincere than when they first hit the charts almost a quarter of a century ago.
Estefan’s renditions of “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Smile” and “What A Wonderful World” had a beautiful darkness to them, especially Shelton Berg’s arrangement of the Louis Armstrong classic. Estefan has one of the most powerful and rich vocal vibratos I’ve ever heard and I hadn’t heard so vividly until this evening’s performance.
As haunting as the material felt at times, Estefan’s warm and humorous stage presence created a nice balance in the show’s overall mood.
The most interesting experiment of the entire evening was a sexy, R&B fueled take on George Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On.” Dean Parks’ rhythm guitar comping played sweetly along with the steady bass line played by Carlos Puerto. Estefan’s vocal delivery proved that she not only has a strong understanding of the complex chord changes but also a deep felt knowledge of the mature lyrical content which separates a good singer from a great one.
Estefan ended the show with the disco anthem “Turn The Beat Around” accompanied by an incredible fireworks display that was synchronized with the music. All in attendance were having a blast, especially the “Glo-Heads,”Estefan’s most loyal fans who took up a third of the upper portion on the Bowl, sporting purple glow sticks.
As an encore, Estefan performed a heartfelt, bluesy reading of the Carol Leigh standard “Young At Heart” to cool things down. The strings, harp, and brass of The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra sounded perfect behind Estefan, creating a dream like ambiance.
Gloria Estefan performed one of the finest concerts I’ve witnessed in a long time, destroying all notions I had of her just being a pop singer. Estefan can do it all and her mature, sultry performance was the perfect fit for a summer concert at The Hollywood Bowl.
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