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Hiromi, Christian Scott at JVC Newport

Joshua Redman

Arguably one of America’s finest large, outdoor spaces in which to hear jazz is the Hollywood Bowl, but unfortunately, a jazz enthusiast can frequently get lost on his or her way to the venue. Thus it was an extra special pleasure to hear a triple-header of respected jazz players and legends when Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride (pictured) and Joshua Redman recently brought their fine respective bands and visions to the sprawling, moonlit amphitheatre.

Something was very right with the artistic picture, which reminded regular Bowl-goers of what’s often wrong here. The Bowl’s annual Playboy Jazz Festival is famous for sabotaging its good intentions, foolishly mixing the milquetoast sounds of smooth jazz with actual jazz content (there should be a law against this practice). The JVC festival arriving at the Bowl in late August is entirely smooth in texture, which will surely keep away the jazz buffs.

For this token evening on the summer-long schedule, though, we caught solid examples of current yet tradition-grounded jazz. This is not at all to suggest that the concert was a die-hard mainstream and unplugged jazz foray. All parties have covered a broad range of styles under the jazz rubric, including ventures into regions of funk, soul and other pop-colored terrain-as McBride and Hancock did on this night.

No doubt, the event was partly thanks to the new post held by McBride, as the Creative Chair for Jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which programs the Bowl (the role was previously held by Dianne Reeves). McBride may help heat up the jazz cause in quarters where the L.A. Phil holds sway, and also help encourage more talk between the classical and jazz worlds-an effort always worth pursuing.

McBride’s own group banked on the strengths of soloists Ron Blake, mostly on tenor, and keyboardist Geoff Keezer, whose seamless moves from grand piano to B-3 module, Rhodes and synthesizer set the stage for the material. McBride’s group, also fortified by the rhythm- sectional anchor of drummer Terreon Gully, sunk into vampland, stretching out versions of tunes including the leader’s own sinuous “Clerow’s Flipped” (a tribute to Flip Wilson) and the reggae-flecked “Lullaby for a Ladybug.” The bassist went electric for a version of “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” the old slow-brewing, organically grooving classic by Weather Report (a band which played on this stage numerous times).

McBride’s band doesn’t have the ineffable mystique of Weather Report, but, even so, it’s great to hear strong, contemporary players such as these bringing this brilliant songbook to the live arena again.

The clean-burning acoustic jazz award this evening went to Redman and his nimble, lean and mean chordless trio, opening the concert with a warm blast of “real” jazz credibility. A mid-career player whose strong voice seems to be gaining a new measure of personal distinction, Redman has no trouble taking command of the extra space in a trio, exerting creative ferocity and taste as he goes. It helps, of course, that he has inspired allies in bassist Reuben Rogers and the elegant young monster Eric Harland.

Opening with a new twist on “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” the trio served up a blurry fury on Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle.” For original material, they moved easily from the driving up tune “Back East” and the exotic medium-tempo piece “Zarafah,” a tune dedicated to Redman’s mother and played, persuasively, on soprano. “Odd Man Out” nudged into the funk zone, but in the cerebral meter of 7/4.

Headlining the show was the latest in Hancock’s rotation of bands, who ended a long summer tour in the keyboardist’s hometown. While we might long for some new Hancock material these days, the band mostly relied on archival tunes-the beautifully spidery Headhunters tune “Actual Proof” and ’60s standbys “Maiden Voyage” and Cantaloupe Island.”

In terms of the band’s personnel, the best news: Hancock has wisely employed the rising star guitarist Lionel Lueke, the Benin-born player whose command of jazz, funk and African elements gives him an inspired inroad to a new sound and vision on an instrument desperately needing it. Teenage drummer Richie Barshay showed why he’s one of the hottest new drummers on the scene, and Matthew Garrison worked nimble wonders on his six-string bass while showing a growing maturity in the musicality department.

The not-so-great news in this Hancock band: violinist Lili Haydn is the other melodic “voice” in the band, and while she is blessed with multiple talents, dealing with the swing imperative of jazz isn’t one of them. She seemed out of place, especially when the band played her melancholic tune “Unfolding Grace.” Then again, Hancock is busy rewriting genre rules again-as evidenced on last year’s pop album Possibilities-and he may be working off of a new drawing board.

It is inevitable to compare Hancock’s new and old music, as he is a legendary and creatively restless figure in jazz. Take away the chatter of old memories and the judging of his current ensemble, and the most moving music of Hancock’s set-and the evening-came during the keyboardist’s signature workouts on his Fazioli grand piano. In those precious moments, we heard identifiable Hancock-ian vocabulary and virtuosity, an explorer’s stamp, real-time invention and a sense that jazz had, for one night at least, securely landed at this historic address.

Originally Published