Swing has become such a loosely defined idiom that the Hollywood Bowl could assemble a package of diverse acts from three generations Wednesday and still credibly call it a “swing” night. They managed to do so without a single “ghost” band from the actual so-called Swing Era, whose original fans are now in their 80s or beyond. Of these acts, the most invigorating by far was the veteran Manhattan Transfer, who long ago transcended the “swing” label but still pitch their tent widely enough to take it in comfortably and then some.
With 35 years of performing behind them, the Transfer foursome took time out from plotting their next musical detour to put together a swinging big-band package drawn from several of their albums dating from 1975 to 2000. Despite having just arrived from Portugal for this one American gig before jetting back to Europe, they sounded fresh enough to blast through “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” intricately fuse Louis Armstrong’s “Hotter Than That” to a Louis Prima boogie beat and revisit some of their vocalese triumphs (“Blee Blop Blues,” “Tuxedo Junction,” a more frantically paced “Birdland”). There is, of course, much more to the Transfer than that, but their ability to electrify jazz’s past with such scrupulous attention to detail remains a national resource.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which has tried — with less success — to break out of the retro swing box, devoted much of its set to a celebration of the centenary of one of the band’s patron saints, Cab Calloway. That’s asking a lot, for Cab was an inimitable personality, and lead singer Scotty Morris could not muster the charisma to get the audience involved in the call-and-response routines that Calloway could do into his 80s. The band could not get the Bowl jumping as their earthbound beat ran the narrow gamut between loud and blatant.
The most interesting thing about Sophie Milman is her biography — she discovered forbidden jazz as a young girl in the Soviet Union and emigrated first to Israel and then to Toronto, where she is breaking through as a purveyor of standards. Right now, though, her act would fit better in a small club than such an immense facility as the Bowl; her singing seemed only modestly sultry in front of her excellent Canadian jazz combo.