*Without explicitly declaring such, this year’s Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival was dedicated to the spirit, the struggle, and the celebration of Africans around the world, throughout the galaxies, and within the art form of music. Over the course of this Father’s Day weekend leading into Monday, June 19 becoming the first Nationally observed holiday Juneteenth – the day that African Americans in Texas learned years after the fact that they had already been set “free” – this year’s jazz festival colorfully and loudly reveled in music across the diaspora of a people with arms outstretched toward all to partake and enjoy.
In an interview with journalist Darlene Donloe for The Los Angeles Wave newspaper, Kamasi Washington (who co-curated this year’s festival with Creative chair Herbie Hancock in conjunction with the L.A. Philharmonic) prophetically stated, “With African American music, we create genres that split everything up. All this music is related to each other. I don’t see a huge benefit to them being disconnected. To have the music feel like we’re all family is a beautiful thing. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”
Saturday’s festivities kicked off with comedian/legendary ceiling crashing former late-night television variety show host Arsenio Hall stepping in for the second time as festival host following a great run by George Lopez and originally held by Bill Cosby. Throughout the weekend, he kept things tight and shared biographical intros on the artists (and personal ones for those he encountered over the years) with only the tiniest of sophomore faux pas’ (some not even his fault).
The first group of musicians up was the Los Angeles County High School For The Arts most promising high school students. And they were not playing around, opening with a furious whirl through be-bop innovator Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come!” They followed with an original composition by the group’s trumpeter Evan Dexter dedicated to his music teacher, “Mr. Carr’s Blues” which became a setup for A-chair 12-bar solos plus a full horn section break that revealed both dynamics and spirit! A 14-piece vocal choir joined the band next for the swingin’ “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” made famous in the `60s by the incomparable Sammy Davis, Jr.
Next up was the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA. comprised of outstanding up-and-coming jazz musicians hand-picked by both Hancock and Herb Alpert. Early on, singer Darynn Dean, granddaughter of drummer Donald Dean (world-famous for his tenure with Les McCann) was featured on a warmly unique arrangement of Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s “I Say a Little Prayer” (first made famous by Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin). This arrangement found the group breaking up the phrases in a hip fresh way leading into killin’ drum and bass phrases. Other set standouts were “Blues for B.M.” dedicated to pianist Brad Mehldau in 7/8 time with great vocal scat, trumpet, and soprano sax solos, and Dean’s “Black Woman,” dedicated to the obvious – with love, respect, and soulful inspiration.
Longtime friends, guitarist Lionel Loueke of Benin, West Africa, and Los Angeles-born vocalist Gretchen Parlato, next delivered a deliciously intimate series of duets (with sensitive percussion accompaniment) that turned the Bowl into a love nest. Highlights included deep dives into the soul-pop gems “I Miss You” (originated by the all-girl band Klymaxx) and “I Can’t Help It” (a Stevie Wonder/Susaye Greene classic first recorded by Michael Jackson). The way they dissected the rhythm of the phrasing on the latter was killin’! With Loueke being a longtime and current member of Herbie Hancock’s band, it was no surprise that the duo dug into his serenely erotic gem “Butterfly” – but the surprise was new lyrics…sublime. Parlato’s “If I Knew” showcased Loueke’s signature guitar soloing from outer space. And they also introduced original compositions “Learning to Love” “Akwe,” “Nonvignon” and the title track of their debut CD together, “Lean In.”
Conguero Poncho Sanchez, a west coast legend and mainstay of all things Latin Jazz and Salsa, had the audience in the palms of his hands with freshly recorded new music from an upcoming album featuring arrangements by Francisco Torre. Ever the gentleman, Sanchez even shouted out his soundman as a member of the band. Versions of Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Cal Tjader’s “Soul Sauce” almost had the ladies coming out of their tops!
The all-star quartet Aziza led by bassist Dave Holland turned in the most outstanding jazz set of the weekend. Drummer Eric Harland, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and a returning Lionel Loueke on guitar let the music do the talking with no pauses for song introductions or explanations. Their synchronistic legitimacy was omni-apparent. One Holland bass solo with Loueke shadowing was a pure sun-dappled work of art.
The lady that most were in the house to see this opening day was 2-time Grammy-winner Samara Joy. The 23-year-old Bronx-born singer/songwriter offered up a roundly impressive showcase of her skills and attributes thus far, taking the stage to the theme of Nat Adderley’s “Fun” which led into “A Kiss From You” and “Sweet Pumpkin.” She wowed with her speed, precision, and flair on the title track of her latest album, “Linger Awhile,” and her own lyricized take on Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia” which sandwiched a respectful glide through Antonio Carlos Jobim’s and Vinicius de Moraes’ 1957 classic “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues)” sung in the original Portuguese. Throughout, her band was airtight, supporting her firm and fluid articulation. Near the set’s end, she shared the story of her rapid ascent in the jazz world in a touching retelling filled with sincere gratitude. However, this led into the one interpretation of hers that has been a thorn in this writer’s side from her beginnings (I am, admittedly, in the minority here). When Samara sings “Guess Who I Saw Today” (owned by Nancy Wilson in her lifetime), I hear her leaning on the tone of her voice more than an inspired rendering of the well-known story of the lyric. Not adding much to this was her turning it into a medley with Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” There’s a promising concept here… I only hope (and intuit) that it will mature in time. Ms. Joy closed with a brilliant version of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” (first recorded instrumentally by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers in 1956) with a new lyric. Bravissimo.
The 8-piece band St. Paul & The Broken Bones straight outta Birmingham Alabama made up for a previously missed engagement at the festival with a meat and potatoes tent pole Soul show that was half jam band and half Blues-Rock. Several mid-set originals including “Minotaur,” “Wolf in Rabbit’s Clothing” and “Walk Monster” took a backseat to an out-of-the-blue nod to Parliament’s Clones of Dr. Funkenestein classic “Gamin’ On Ya.” Also memorable (and thankfully injury-free) was when lead singer Paul Janeway came out into the crowd to sing on the roof of the lighting bunker where a soul sister from the audience gleefully joined him for a moment before losing her balance and falling into the safety net of a canopy below.
Los Angeles hometown hero/guru, saxophonist/band leader Kamasi Washington, brought his sprawling jazz philharmonic of instrumentalists and vocalists to the forefront with a well-paced set of 6 songs from his 3-CD offering The Epic. In the quote I lifted that started this review, Kamasi spoke of all the music being offered by the festival’s various artists as part of one indigenous family. In his own set, all that music blended into an intracultural suite. Jazz, Blues, Hip Hop, and Gospel all stirred into the heavyweight pieces “Miss Understanding,” “Vi Luna, Vi Sol,” “How I Became a Madman,” “Street Fighter Mass,” “Re-Run” and the ferocious closer “Fists of Fury.”
This led into the anticlimactic finale of Saturday night: the presence of Bell Biv DeVoe (BBD). It would be easy to dump on this late `80s new jack hip hop act to be on a jazz festival…but it must be stated that this festival and its previous incarnation the Playboy Jazz Festival, has often had artists with no ties to jazz in the closing slot, including Janelle Monae, Macy Gray, rappers, rock bands and world music ensembles. BBD (a spin-off trio from the original Boston-based soul-pop group New Edition) was problematic because their show was poorly paced and poorly placed within this jazz festival day. Had they been scheduled earlier in the evening and done a tighter, shorter high-energy set, they could have exceeded expectations and crushed all skepticism by JUST rocking the 5 hit singles from their multi-platinum debut album, Poison, and maybe one new number. But no…
First, their entrance from the top of a stairwell was lackluster (with roadies still hauling out equipment as they took the stage). The group’s primary singer, Ricky Bell, was in weak voice. And Michael Bivins seemed distracted pacing the stage when not rapping. The only member who appeared completely on-point was rapper/choreographer Ronnie DeVoe who not only rocked the BBD dance routines, he also joined their four female backing dancers who were serving Friday Night Lights fire all night long.
To their credit, BBD started with three of their biggest hits, “She’s Dope!,” “BBD (I Thought it Was Me)!” and “Do Me!.” However, the loooong show midsection sagged with three lesser-known later songs (not the move for a jazz festival), a medley of New Edition songs (tipping their caps to that group’s 40+ year anniversary) and both of the trio’s ballad hits “When Will I See You Smile Again” and “Something in Your Eyes,” – back-to-back – on a bad chops night for Bell. He even tried to have the audience sing his highest falsetto line (“I apologize’) for him. Sadly, Bell doesn’t have it like Frankie Beverly. An overlong failed attempt at audience participation was the nail in the coffin… Though BBD closed with their groundbreaking hit “Poison!,” somehow the festival wild card left the stage as lackluster as they entered it.
Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival continued like hot java – black and strong – with the LAUSD Beyond the Bell student group which proved to be a highly promising collection of young jazz lions.
Next up was the rousing, deep-cut Gospel-Jazz courtesy of singer/bassist Andrew Gouché & Prayze Connection. Selections included “Promise Keeper,” “Me and Jesus Talked” and a cover of The Clark Sisters’ “You Brought The Sunshine.”
Next, like Saturday’s amazing Aziza, was another outstanding jazz quintet Butcher Brown bringing a mind-expanding blend of Hip-Hop and jazz-Rock Fusion. Their set included “Around For A While,” “DYNWYD,” “Only Live Fast” and “1992.” Towards the end, they broke into the Ronnie Laws Quiet Storm gem “Tidal Wave” but the sax man could have done more than breathe the head over & over, and play a lil’ mo’ horn in honor of the great Houston tenor man.
Haiti’s Boukman Eksperyans (think “experience” when pronouncing the last name) is a sextet consisting of a DJ, a conga player, a guitarist, and three lead singers: one male, two female. As colorful as their costumes, the group soothed souls under the Father’s Day sun with some spirited mid-tempo island vibration
Another set many were looking forward to experiencing was The Soul Rebels who brought New Orleans marching band funk-jazz laced with hip-hop vocals on hype numbers such as “Rebel Rock/Rebelosis” and a cover of Toto’s “Georgy Porgy.” They were joined by cult trans star Big Freedia whose usually far-out style of dress appeared to be muted by fashion police censors as her bright orange 2-piece was marred in the midriff by a long white shirt covering her belly. She and her dancers still shook it up for the people with “I Heard,” “No Bounce,” “Good Time” and the crowd favorite, “Gin in My System.”
The Cardinal Divas Drumline took the stage for a heart-racing 5-minute salute to Black Excellence with the Juneteenth holiday coming the following day, June 19th.
’90s Hip Hop-Jazz trio Digable Planets has been reuniting and re-reuniting over the last 7 years, giving fans potent ‘nickel bags of funk’ from their heady, jazzy, intellectual yet cultural classics from their highly distinct two albums Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)  and Blowout Comb . They were a perfect match for this festival as their music definitively represents the dynamic crossing point of Hip Hop and Jazz. Giving much space to each other and their tight-to-death band, members Ishmael Butler (“Butterfly”), Mary Ann Vieira (“Ladybug Mecca”) and Craig Irving (“Doodlebug”) floated serenely and expertly through gems such as “Where I’m From,” “Pacifics,” “Cool Breezes,” “Jettin’” and their signature hit, “Cool Like Dat” which everyone had been waiting for.
Backstage, Digable Planets had a few salient things to share with me about possible new music to come. Irving stated, “We have seasoned, veteran band members so, there’s a lot of freestyle vibin’ goin’ on. Out of some of those interludes, we look at each other like, ‘Yo, that could be a song.’ Each night is a different vibe. It’s the same songs but always a different show.” Vieira shared, “We tend to be tapped into life in general. So, we’ll have to sit down and discuss what’s most important for us to touch on (lyrically) now. It’s hard to guess.” Butler concluded, “In this genre of the culture of music, something is dying. You don’t see 5 guys singing R&B anymore. Everybody wants to be a solo act. I’m very interested in keeping the group vibe going, especially with live musicians – the furtherance of a tradition. Also, the political climate today…there’s some cold shit happening…and they mean to show it to you as a declaration of opposition and war. If you’re a musician and a creator and a thinker, the ball is in your court to make something against things that you see are uncool. The best Hip Hop always spoke on what was going on in a creative and poetic way – a slick and stylized way.” Vieira also hinted that they’ve been talking to 9th Wonder about collaborating on some recording. Stay tuned ‘trees and bees and flowers.’
They were followed by vocal siren Ledisi, a fire-power belter who also gave the audience some star power in her femme-centric takes on soul, blues, and jazz.
Highlights from her 21 years of recordings included “It’s Alright,” a duet with her background singer David Michael White that opened with the Luther Vandross arrangement of Leon Russell’s “Superstar” that slid into “Stay Together,” and Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman” taken from her latest CD, Ledisi Sings Nina.
The 2023 Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival closed out with Kamasi Washington’s mothership The West Coast Get Down turning in a phenomenal wrap-up set joined by two special guests. Following a “Piano Bar Medley” and the joints “Blackman” and “Red,” the singers and musicians were joined by Leon Bridges in blues man mode singing a medley of “Born Again,” “Bad, Bad News” and “Kings and Queens.’
Then, following “Walk Free” and a medley of tenor saxophone giant Joe Henderson’s “Resistance/Giant Feelings,” Soul man Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Tone-fame strolled out with bass in hand in full rock star mode (to the musical bridge of Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running To Me”), then tightened up the dynamics of the ensemble right quick to do a medley of his songs “You’re the One I Like,” “Sunshine” and the celestial yearn of “Sky Can You Feel Me” – another highlight of the entire festival as Kamasi used to play in Saadiq’s band so their vibe was super tight.
The West Coast Get Down sent us all home with bassist Miles Mosley’s blazin’ “Abraham” and the closing prayer of John Coltrane’s eternal “A Love Supreme” chant. Overall…a wonderful weekend of music, culture, and spirit.
(Written/reviewed by A. Scott Galloway – Photos: Mathew Imaging/LA Phil – @mathewimaging)
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