The Hollywood Bowl is an open-air venue, but not open enough to save the 2020 season. (Thanks again Xi, and have fun partying in Davos.) Fortunately, a number of significant musicians were recorded live-in-performance at the iconic concert hall, so the L.A. Phil had plenty of footage to chose from when their new “in concert” series. Jazz gets its own episode, rather fittingly considering Norman Granz set a Bowl attendance record at the time in 1956 with one of his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” all-star revues. They have also programmed some good stuff in recent years, some of which is collected in In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl: Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, which premieres Friday on PBS. (By the way, you get the idea that this was recorded at the Hollywood Bowl, right?)
The way Chucho Valdes plays, they really should have saved him to close the program, but hey, we’ll take him whenever. The Afro-Cuban jazz pianist’s rendition of “Bebo,” dedicated to his father Bebo Valdes, is nearly as awesome as his performances in Calle 54 (that means it’s very awesome). It could also be an infectious introduction to Afro-Cuban percussion for some tragically sheltered viewers.
Fans should then be delighted to see and hear Dianne Reeves (the L.A. Phil’s first creative jazz chair) performing “She Walks the Earth” with Brazilian keyboard player Ivan Lins. It is a characteristically elegant and sophisticated, but still very swinging performance. (Frankly, she really should have recorded more since moving from Blue Note to Concord—and given how closely we associate her with the former label’s relaunch, it is hard to fathom how they let her go.)
Kamasi Washington’s “Truth” is another highlight that could surprise a lot of PBS-watching jazz novices with its wonderful colors and textures. Washington shares aesthetic kinships with vintage Coltrane and even Eddie Gale, but a tune like this is also more melodic and therefore more accessible.
The Phil’s maestro Gustavo Dudamel gives vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant an unfairly intimidating intro, comparing her to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, but then she exhibits a unique delivery style on “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. It is also nice to see Aaron Diehl’s trio backing her.
Bassist Christian McBride (the Phil’s 2nd jazz chair) leads his big band and vocalist Jose James through a brisk, brassy, bluesy, and scatty take on Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin,’” best remembered from the Lee Morgan-era Messengers’ classic recording. It has a solid, toe-tapping vibe, even if you can’t help comparing it to the Blakey original.
Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl closes with a performance led by their third and current creative jazz chair, Herbie Hancock, fronting Mega Nova, a special one-time-only band of himself, saxophone legend Wayne Shorter, bassist Marcus Miller, Carlos Santana, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana. However, their rendition of “Watermelon Man” sounds a little too loose and thrown-together, very much in a “super group” kind of way. (Ironically, the partial “Oye Como Va” heard over the closing credits, feels tighter.)
In between the music, we get some forgettable hosting Dudamel, sometimes in conversation with Hancock. The former offers plenty of platitudes, but not a lot of musical context, missing an opportunity for a little bit of jazz education. Oh well. As always, the music is what is important and it is mostly very cool. Recommended with excitement as some rare prime time jazz programming, Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl premieres this Friday (1/29) on PBS.