Just a few years ago, scheduling 90’s pop, rock and soul hitmaker Seal on the slate of Wednesday jazz-oriented nights at the Hollywood Bowl might have seemed like a stretch – and even provoked the shrill scoffing sirens of the purist jazz police. The four-time Grammy winner’s “in” to the jazzy part of the summer schedule is his exquisitely rendered 2017 Rat-Pack era themed album Standards, which the four-time Grammy-winning performer called “the album I always wanted to make.”
The official concert listing said “the British singer leans into jazz with a program of Rat Pack-era tunes with orchestra,” but his renderings of these tunes – with an intimate, scaled-down version of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins – combined to create an inviting warm-up to one of the most eclectic nights in recent musical memory. While offering a slightly truncated roll through his classic hits, Seal made sure everyone was hip to the deeper influences of his diverse artistry, from Frank Sinatra to Curtis Mayfield.
Those who buy a ticket to see the charismatic, always dapper performer – he wore a buttoned-up black shirt, black jacket and bright red hipster shoes – are essentially biding their time through whatever he’s doing while waiting for the payoff of “Kiss from a Rose,” his trademark, multi-Grammy winning mid-90’s hit that made him an integral part of that musical era. Seal made the waiting quite enjoyable with the standards he’s so mad about, starting with a bright swing arrangement of “Luck Be A Lady,” the searing blues-soul of “I Put A Spell On You, ” an exploration of the deeper emotions of the well-worn but always romantic “My Funny Valentine” and a resigned acknowledgement of encroaching middle age on the tender and wistful Frank trademark It Was A Very Good Year.” The raucous “That’s Life” was a definite blast, but the coolest part of this mini-set, hands down, was the classic jazz-soul vibe Seal brought to Irma Thomas’ (non-Rat Pack affiliated) “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is.”
After gushing on about the opportunity Decca Records gave him to record the songs he grew up with at the legendary Capitol Studios, Seals’ pivot to the next part of the show was a keen intro to the artist who inspired him most growing up – one of the main reasons he started singing, he said. And Joni Mitchell was right there in the crowd, spotlight bright on her, as Seal sang the hook of “Big Yellow Taxi” a capella with his big-hearted sandpaper soul bravura: “Paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Yes, we should all urge Mr. Samuel to cover this on his next album of re-imaginings!)
No doubt sensing the icon’s approval, Seal felt liberated to share the brilliant results of his own early artistry. He launched into “Kiss From A Rose” still seated, strumming an acoustic guitar, before letting go and taking full advantage of the big stage and pliable red shoes as the groove deepened, the orchestra swelled and the crowd sang happily along. He brought a funked-up spirituality to “Prayer for the Dying,” then balanced the edgy, tribal funk of “Killer” with his mystical, trippy version of “Fly Like An Eagle” – which also led to a fun singalong.
Seal’s recent discography includes two R&B cover albums, but his way of sharing his passion for the classic soul he and his audience grew up with was to engage the orchestra’s horns on a Mayfield gem he has yet to record, the lively “bold school” horn fired jam “Move On Up,” which he used as preface to his own recent EDM flavored thump-athon “Life on the Dancefloor.” It was the perfect pairing of past and present. Then he went for the emotional jugular, bringing his adorable eight-year-old daughter (with Heidi Klum) Lou Sulola Samuel onstage to play on piano the hypnotic motif to “Superstition,” which brought Seal’s Stevie Wonder influence to the forefront.
The audience was still clapping when the singer jumped into yet another tribute, this one more surprising but no less engaging and jamming – David Bowie’s classic rocker “Rebel Rebel.” This song brought Seal out once again onto the semi-circle platform that extends out into the audience for yet more dancing and clapping along. With everyone on their feet, it was time to get a little “Crazy.” The breezy hypnosis of his breakthrough hit was the perfect encore, which had everyone singing along with a chorus that resonates even more deeply in today’s world gone mad than it did back in 1991.
A decade after Seal enjoyed his biggest success, another British soulster, the dreamy and mega-talented singer/songwriter Corrinne Bailey Rae created a wild sensation of her own, telling everyone to “Put Your Records On” on her infectious global hit that earned two Grammy nominations, topped the UK R&B chart and appealed big time Stateside to fans of R&B, Adult Contemporary and Smooth Jazz. Charming the Bowl Audience with her brief but memorable set, Bailey Rae and her tight band held court amiably, with her crystalline soul vocals and acoustic guitar leading the way. Interestingly, she chose to put her best-known hits (including “Like A Star”) in the middle of the performance so that she could close on a high note, with her dynamic inspirational anthem “The Skies Will Break,” from her 2016 album The Heart Speaks in Whispers.