Three disparate jazz acts, none of which displayed a consistent command of material or audience, demonstrated that playing to your strengths is the only way to approach a Hollywood Bowl set. Bruce Hornsby and his two ace backup musicians dawdled through short, formless tunes before finally hitting on more satisfying groove-driven material; Dave Brubeck’s genteel and cerebral approach never meshed with his band’s vintage R&B style; and each time Madeleine Peyroux stepped outside a stylish vamp, her voice went irritatingly off-key.
Hornsby has been spending the last year in reinvention mode, touring and recording sans band and doing a bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs and a jazz album with the superb bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The Bowl was just their fourth gig together, and it showed: They are not quite sure of how to function as a unit.
Trained in jazz technique at the college level before venturing on to a rock career two decades ago, Hornsby shone as an instrumentalist and bandleader Wednesday only when he maneuvered through material with a bit of a psychedelic haze to it. “Camp Meeting,” the playful title track from his Sony Legacy jazz disc, tapped into his work with the Grateful Dead and provided some slightly funky jumping-off points for the soloists; the group captured some much-needed tension in an interpretation of Keith Jarrett’s early ’70s free-form ballad “Death and the Flower” that retained the mystical charm of the original. Otherwise, the trio’s highlights were limited to McBride’s dazzling solos.
Brubeck’s hourlong set opened with “St. Louis Blues” performed as W.C. Handy wrote it — as a tango. For about three minutes, Brubeck and his band were on the same page, tugging and pulling at the tango format and allowing Brubeck to display the style for which he’s been known for 50 years. Yet toward the end, alto saxophonist Bobby Militello took over the tune and injected a honker-‘n’-shouter approach that ran contrary to Brubeck’s classicism.
And he didn’t limit that approach — think King Curtis plays with the MJQ — to just one tune: Militello went overboard on nearly every tune and shook up whatever cohesion Brubeck had with his rhythm section, which often chose to follow Militello on a gritty journey, leaving Brubeck in the weeds. Brubeck, 86, has made accessibility a keystone in his work, and this disparate show, which bounced around stylistically as if an attempt were being made to show the history of jazz in a nonchronological order, served neither his musicianship nor his legacy.
Peyroux, who has Billie Holiday’s slur and fragility down pat, has a clear and obvious comfort zone onstage. The band plays on the slow side of midtempo, the bass and strummed guitar pulsing at a heartbeat’s rate, and she slides in lyrics full of romantic admonishments. She also does Leonard Cohen quite well. But when she veers into a more shapeless piece, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” for example, her voice goes flat and her phrasing becomes unfocused. Saving grace throughout her set was the fine keyboard playing of Jim Beard, who introduced the flavors of smoky blues, Jobim and even a little Brubeck on acoustic and electric piano as well as organ.