With the peculiarly matched threesome of Boz Scaggs, Cassandra Wilson and Eliane Elias, Jazz at the Bowl tried out the eclectic programming philosophy of its June cousin, the Playboy Jazz Festival. It isn’t worth the trouble to figure out what these three have in common; not even the slapdash title of the concert, “Jazz Lowdown” (inspired by Scaggs’ hit of nearly 30 years ago), made much sense. So one could only sit back and sample the three-hour smorgasbord of music, which was quite filling but only intermittently satisfying.
Eliane Elias, a Brazilian-born pianist who now spends a good deal of her time singing in a modest, quietly sultry voice, kept mostly to a low-energy bossa nova format with a trio augmented now and then by acoustic guitar. Like Frank Sinatra, she could turn “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” into a relaxed bossa nova, while doing the same for “Call Me” and “Tangerine” at even slower tempos. To close, Elias reversed the process, converting “Desafinado” into advanced North American post-bop. Unfortunately, the sound engineers did not do justice to her piano or voice, blurring both.
Cassandra Wilson continues to confound expectations of what a jazz singer should be doing, evidently with some glee at this outing. For Bob Dylan’s country pie “Lay Lady Lay,” she almost chanted the vocal over powerful, heavy African congas and staccato guitar. She then took on another country tune, Patsy Cline hit “Crazy,” simply and soulfully. The blues tune “Honey Bee” juxtaposed a backwoods banjo with a catchy funk beat, and Wilson now plays acoustic guitar onstage with a delicate, coloristic touch. Not every gamble worked, though — e.g., her deconstruction of Sting’s “Fragile.”
At the Playboy fest last summer, Scaggs was trying to convert himself into a smooth crooner of old standards; his best shot, ironically, was a great new jazzy take on “Lowdown.” On Wednesday night, though, the original hit arrangement of “Lowdown” was back in place, along with several of his hits like “Lido Shuffle,” “Jojo,” “Look What You’ve Done to Me” and “Miss Sun” that oozed the commercial pop/rock formulas of 1976-80.
Yet with the flick of a switch, the band could suddenly become a jazz rhythm section fit for a lounge, and Scaggs’ relaxed command over tunes like “Sophisticated Lady” and “How Long Has This Been Going On” has grown in the past year. This deliberately split personality went down easily enough, although when Scaggs asked the audience whether it wanted an uptempo encore or a standard, the voice vote came out in favor of uptempo.
The most moving part of the evening was a slide show between acts of bassist Milt Hinton’s powerful photographs from the days of segregation, with jazz greats passing through doorways marked “colored entrance.”