Though it’s got a new name and is now organized by the LA Philharmonic, make no mistake, the “first annual” Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival is every bit the magical, soulful, fiery and above all stylistically eclectic event its processor, the legendary Playboy Jazz Festival was for over 40 years.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the term “jazz” is that it can be many things to different people, incorporating vibes and rhythmic styles that make trying to define exactly what jazz is an experience not unlike following a darting laser on a malleable, shapeshifting wall. Just as Playboy Jazz’s lineups were always big tent events catering to a multitude of musical tastes, the newly branded event was full of different vibes, alternating energies and many dynamic surprises. And, subbing amiably for regular emcee George Lopez, the always hipster, always game Arsenio Hall – who opened with a reminder that this day (Saturday) was a true representation of 100 Years of Summer at the Bowl.
Those who dared to bake in the 90+ degree heat from the get go were treated to a batch of young artists who represent the bright future of jazz, the LA County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble. After a subtle, slow building opening number that evolved into a piano and trombone duet, the group revved up for an explosive jam driven by a lively piano solo and a funked out two fisted ‘bone-sax jam. Much of the set was dominated by a 12 member a capella choir that eased effortlessly and soulfully between classic R&B (“What’s Going On”) and swinging, scat infused excitement (“Everybody’s Boppin’”).
Next up, kicking up the overall high octane, highly danceable musical aesthetic that dominated most of the day was Jungle Fire, a scorching, densely percussive 10-member Latin Fusion ensemble (including three horn players and three front line percussionists) that started jamming informally in the Pico Union area and have evolved into an alternately sensual and burning world class world music powerhouse. In addition to hopping into buoyant African grooves at some junctures, Jungle Fire’s very California-ized brand of Latin funk offers the distinctive West Coast vibe with a snappy, jangling surf guitar element.
Following their total late afternoon party vibe, pianist Gerald Clayton and his inventive band eased into a classy, more laid back early evening mode with a set of thoughtful, sometimes meditational traditional jazz and edgy hard swinging fusion marked by subtle rumblings, then brashly grooving bass and drums, artful horn solos and the leader’s gorgeous and hypnotic piano improvisations. One of his most affecting pieces was a moody reflection on the legacy of “Frederick Douglass.”
Arsenio said it best about The Azar Lawrence Experience after the legendary saxman and his funkified, burning brass fired ensemble finished an intensely rhythmic, wildly mixed set driven by funky fusion, smooth and soaring R&B/urban jazz vocals and Latin flavors: “That’s why they call it an experience!” The fun part about Lawrence’s band is that the audience never knew what was coming next. They started with sizzling Latin jazz showcasing Lawrence’s furious horn intensity, then brought it down for a passionate vocal by their female singer, with Lawrence all about the fnnky solo. And then a total smooth jazz ballad immersion before wrapping with some jamming rock blues fusion.
Those in the audience who might have been familiar with multi-faceted, scat intensive jazz vocalist Veronica Swift from her impressive 2021 album This Bitter Earth were no doubt blown away when she lit up the stage with an emotionally intense, epic jazz/rock extravaganza for the ages. Dressed in a hot red burlesque dress with delightfully flapping fringe and wearing glowing eye shadow, she cut a compelling figure perfectly suited for the dramatic flair and hard edged swing she brought to the presentation. Her opening number “You’ve Got To Be Taught” was the perfect showcase for her soaring vocals and otherworldly scat talents. She built on this energy with “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” a feisty and visceral rock blues romp featuring a blazing rock guitar solo and her distorted bluesy vocalizing. Another highlight of her sultry yet burning cabaret like performance was a rock twist on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Like Swift, another great surprise at the festival was the riveting, socially conscious presentation of mystical blues/jazz/rocker Fantastic Negrito (Main Picture), whose voice sounds like a raspy male version of Macy Gray. He ran through a set of socio-politically charged jams, including tunes from his new album White Jesus Black Problems like “You Better Have a Gun” and “Highest Bidder,” wrapping with the hopefully autobiographical folk-tinged “Virginia Soil,” whose refrain “Freedom will come” was particularly poignant and necessary at this moment. The highlight of the set, though, was not a full song, but his cathartic audience participation refrain, “Take all the bullshit and turn it into good shit.”
Hands down, my personal favorite one-two punch of the day – the mind-blowingly cool rhythm guitar funkmaster Cory Wong and jazz/hip-hop/neo-soul vocalist Jose James paying homage to the late great Bill Withers – are the types of artists many jazz purists would say shouldn’t have a slot at an event billed as a “jazz festival.” But that’s precisely why they were so great – because audiences love it when promoters mix it up and showcase artists appealing to a wide variety of tastes.
Having become familiar with Wong’s jamming rock/jazz/funk intensity and horn integration talents via The Golden Hour, the 2021 dual album he recorded with Dave Koz, it was particularly gratifying when Koz made a special guest appearance for the gently lilting “Gratitude,” a thoughtfully arranged piece with Wong’s five piece horn ensemble – followed by a scorching rock/jazz jam. Modulating from sparkling jangle to wah-wah, spacey synth vibes and all sonic points in between, Wong and his large crew were all about slammin’ rock/jazz with some thumping dance grooves and a little laid back sensuality for good measure.
James has recorded four albums since his splendid 2018 Withers tribute Lean On Me, but made his stunning, deeply soulful show of re-imagined classics almost like a delayed CD release party. Hearing the opening vocals or instrumental strains of classics like the opener “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lean on Me” (which turned into a singalong) and “Just the Two of Us” (which he did as a medley with Bobby Caldwell’s always engaging “What You Won’t Do For Love”) was delightful, and the full house obliged by swelling up with applause on each number. Yet the true magic of the set was the way he and his band took these tunes out into inventive, jazzy, improvisational territory – but never so far that they lost sight of the melodies everyone wanted to sing. The highlight of the set was when Bill’s daughter Kori Withers came out unexpectedly to join James for a rousing extended, improv-rich romp through “Use Me” and the always musically and spiritually uplifting “Lovely Day.”
Free from the confines of the bandstand of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” the tightly funky rock, progressive soul and alt hip-hop band The Roots closed the festival’s first night with a relentless, bold and brassy 75 minutes of non-stop boisterous energy led by rapper/vocalist Black Thought and drummer Questlove that was all at once delightfully old school (“Jungle Boogie,” “I Got My Mind Made Up”) and intoxicatingly thought provoking (“You Got Me”).