The Hollywood Bowl — onetime stomping grounds of George Gershwin himself — has never before held a full-blown Gershwin festival. So, for its first time out, the net has been spread wide, centered by a cannily organized and sequenced jazz outing that also touched upon George and Ira Gershwin’s associations with film.
In doing so, “The Gershwins in Hollywood” perhaps had to stretch a bit too far, for while just about every number was featured in one film or another, the Gershwins personally wrote songs for only a few of them. Moreover, the real focus of the night was the huge influence of the Gershwins upon jazz, providing a good deal of its repertoire and even its harmonic structure — the bedrock that their successors built upon.
The bedrock for this concert was the Bill Charlap Trio, which served as the swinging, crisply engineered anchor for all the singers and a compact band of horns that expanded the group into a nifty septet or octet. As in other recent successful jazz tributes at the Bowl, each singer would do a number or two and then make way for the next, with an occasional vintage video as a link. And for authentic atmosphere, when they weren’t singing, Jon Hendricks, Oleta Adams, Cleo Laine and Barbara Morrison lounged onstage at a pair of circular club tables, drinks (bottled water) in hand.
It was Hendricks who seized the moment the most creatively. In the first half, he sailed into the sublime Miles Davis/Gil Evans transformations of “Summertime” and “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess,” adapting the existing lyrics to fit the contours of Davis’ solos, with the octet providing amazingly evocative reductions of Evans’ charts. Later, he demonstrated how the Gershwins influenced bebop as “I Got Rhythm” morphed into Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” and Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” without a break in stride. This was a great history lesson.
Laine, apparently as ageless as Hendricks, was in fine, movingly idiosyncratic form, while Morrison offered a grittier approach, and Adams yet another, sultrier set of colors. Any bandleader would kill to have horns like these in their group Wednesday, with the majestic, laconic, soul-drenched tenor sax of Houston Person and Nicholas Payton’s crackling trumpet making the most striking statements. Shrewd planning — clocked almost to the second — was apparent in every facet of the evening.