Smooth Summer Jazz

Smooth Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, CA

Having attended the Hollywood Bowl’s annual Smooth Summer Jazz extravaganza/evening mini-fest numerous times, I knew there was a ton of fun-filled, grooving magic in store—yet as the shuttle bus inched its way up the hill towards the Main Plaza dropoff, my frazzled LA instincts kicked in, shifting my mind to the dark side.

Guitarist Adam Hawley, the young genre sensation with four consecutive #1 Billboard hits to his credit, was opening the show in 15 minutes, and the lines to get through security looked more overwhelming than at LAX. Would I miss his entire…? Then I caught myself and realized that this sea of bustling humanity about to pack the house was here for a night of partying and smooth jazz. Over 32 years since The Wave launched in LA, the format has survived the transformation from the terrestrial to satellite radio and the digital/streaming era. The urban-oriented instrumental vibes, occasional hipster vocals and classic R&B that preceded it was still drawing crowds like crazy. More specifically to the point of this year’s SSJ event, that meant a lot of amazing, time transcendent realities.

People were still wanting to hear the exotic East meets West soul/jazz fusion of Hiroshima 40 years after the release of their debut album. Fans were still excited to see the Commodores brick housin’ it up nearly 35 years since their last smash, the Grammy-winning “Night Shift.” And nearly 30 years since Dave Koz’s debut on Capitol Records, his hair may be shorter and a now-dapper gray but he and his high energy pals (collectively known these days as Dave Koz & Friends Summer Horns) are still the hottest things going in that wild land where sizzling funk meets silky smooth. All those truths, combined with Adam Hawley’s dynamic double shift as opening headliner and guitarist for the Koz experience, are great enough as a concept. Put into action on this spirited August night over the course of four-plus hours, they were a marvel to hear and watch.

One of smooth jazz’s most versatile and beloved recording artists, performers, cruise hosts, emcees and entrepreneurs, the irrepressible Koz had a blast once again translating the success and excitement of his retro-minded Summer Horns albums to the stage. As with his holiday tours, he’s all about keeping great company, alternating solo spotlights and backing harmonies with a dizzying array of comings and goings that makes his sets fly by. Starting off with his infectious “Together Again,” he brought on all-stars Gerald Albright (“Bermuda Nights”) and Rick Braun (“Use Me”) for a unique, breakneck-paced 11-minute opening jam they literally call the “Nuggets Medley.”

Then came Koz’s picture-perfect introduction to his other “horn,” trombonist and transcendent vocalist Aubrey Logan via a scorching old school mash-up of '70s horn smashes “Getaway” and “That’s The Way I Like It,” followed by a full-scale seduction by soul great Kenny Lattimore breezing through the Earth, Wind & Fire arrangement of “Got To Get You Into My Life.” Koz, Albright and Braun all got in the action with solos on the next number, an explosive romp through Natalie Cole’s huggin’, squeezin’ kissin’ and pleasin’ “This Will Be,” performed as a duet by Logan and Lattimore.

Great as the instrumental moments were—Koz’s swingin’ new tune “And Then I Knew” and Albright’s and Braun’s swirl through Maze’s “Before I Let Go” were highlights—there’s no question that the multi-talented Logan stole the show with her crazy-cool rendition of “Natural Woman,” which surely made the Queen of Soul (and Carole King) smile somewhere. Lattimore kept the divine madness flowing with his buoyant spin through Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The Wave’s Pat Prescott, who emceed between sets, warned us early on not to leave early even though it was a Sunday night, and we knew why as soon as special guest (and one time Summer Horn regular) Mindi Abair blasted onto the stage for a raucous “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and then Candy Dulfer strolled out to create a dazzling five-piece horn section for a final medley that included snippets of “Give It To Me Baby,” “What Is Hip?” and, perfectly capturing this specific moment, “Hollywood Swinging.”

Preceding them were the ageless and timeless, soul fired and expertly choreographed Commodores, led by William King and Walter Orange from the band’s classic lineup and J.D. Nicholas, who joined to help usher in their mid-'80s “Nightshift” era. The trio had a powerhouse five-piece backing band, putting a spotlight at one point on bassist Tyron Stanton, but the instrumental elements that stood out most were King’s incredible trumpet skills (yes, between Commodores gigs, he’d make a perfect “summer horn”) and Orange’s wild percussion interludes. They got the audience up and dancing for danceable classics like “Too Hot to Trot,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” and “Brick House,” and even sneaked some “Machine Gun” (their first instrumental hit) in the set. “Nightshift” is particularly poignant nearly 35 years later, after so many other greats have come and gone.

Having just seen Lionel Richie, who wrote and sang the group’s classic ballads, at the Bowl a few weeks before, I had no idea if his former group would tackle his hits—but they did, and beautifully. Alternating lead vocals between Orange and Nicholas, they nearly out Lionel’d Lionel with their versions of “Easy” (King’s trumpet harmony set this one soaring), “Three Times a Lady” and “Still,” which Richie actually left out of his set.

A few keynotes on the opening artists, whose sets sometimes get memory shuffled in the midst of the heat that comes later:

Following the rock/funk guitar of Adam Hawley with the multi-faceted world fusion of LA’s homegrown multi-ethnic Hiroshima was a stroke of genius, because it presented the present and future of the genre along with many freewheeling adventures from the storied past that led us to this moment. Working with a stunning band featuring saxman Keith McKelley and vocalist Kat Finley, the guitarist mixed his tight, throbbing originals with classics like “Let’s Groove” and “Get Down on It.” Driven by multi-instrumentalist Dan Kuramoto (keys, sax, flute, shakuhachi), koto legend June Kuramoto and an ensemble featuring keyboardist Kimo Cornwell and taiko master/percussionist Danny Yamamoto, Hiroshima’s blend of graceful etherealness, seductive thump and booming exotica set the stage for the numerous danceable delights to come.