If the will to swing is a crucial component of jazz — as Wynton Marsalis endlessly reminds us — then Wednesday night’s edition of Lexus Jazz at the Bowl was an undoubted success. It was precisely this quality that carried the first half of the evening, fueled by the rhythmic engines of two superb piano trios, whose momentum spilled over into the big band second half.
One of the trios — John Clayton (bass), Bill Cunliffe (piano), Jeff Hamilton (drums) — provided a solid launching pad for the Bowl solo debut of fast-rising violinist Regina Carter. Carter, whose new Verve album is “Rhythms of the Heart,” has plenty of room to run, for few jazz violinists emerge due to the sheer difficulty of mastering the instrument and the rigorous classical training violinists undergo that usually has little or nothing to do with improvisation and swing.
Carter retains some of the formalities of the classical world — standing stock still with a studious look, throwing in classical arpeggios as a cadenza. But when she unleashed her silky-smooth tone, gently teasing glides, ample box of quotes and subtle swing on “Lady Be Good,” there was little doubt that jazz is firmly in her bloodstream. Later on, she handled herself with aplomb before the roaring Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
Earlier, Ray Brown’s laconically witty trio broke convincingly out of the piano trio rut with some creative arrangements — a slow, irresistibly breezy “Honeysuckle Rose,” and a get-down, soul-jazz treatment of “Reunion Blues.” The lift provided by the Brown trio also brought out the best in Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose Ella-like scatting was especially energizing when thrown into a dialogue with Brown on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She took some chances, stretching “Cherokee” way out of shape at an extremely slow tempo before snapping back into place, and seemed even more comfortable reacting to the big band in some Ellington tunes.
Indeed, the CHJO is settling nicely into its role as the Bowl’s resident jazz anchor, and co-leader John Clayton is encouraging his team to have some fun. Their best moment was an informal blues, “Shout Me Out,” on which the two soloists, tenor saxophonist Charles Owens and trombonist Isaac Smith, were cracking up their colleagues (and many in the audience) with some zany, out-there, yet firmly musical flights.