Despite eclectic lineups in other cities, the JVC Jazz Festival’s annual Hollywood Bowl edition has come to stand for just one thing: easy-listening, so-called contemporary jazz. While there was an ample supply of the popular, pounding, R&B-tinged sound that Artie Shaw once mischievously described as “saxophone and windshield wipers,” not everyone would settle for that stereotype Sunday.
For openers, San Diego’s Greyboy All-Stars produced a solid, soul-jazz sound from the 1960s, with hard-nosed funk guitar from Elgin Park, Karl Denson’s R&B sax (with flashes of Coltrane), and Robert Walter’s competent comping on vintage Hammond B-3 organ and Rhodes electric piano.
Then Joe Sample came forth with a rare and welcome creature — an acoustic piano trio that owes absolutely nothing to bebop. With his instantly recognizable, muscular chords and staccato solos, Sample continues to stamp his sound upon everything he does, whether in older tunes such as “Rainbow Seeker” and “Chain Reaction” or his sauntering recent hit “Hippies on a Corner,” the latter prefaced by an engaging, preacher-like spoken intro.
Sample brought on a surprise guest, singer and onetime collaborator Randy Crawford, who sounded a bit strained in “One Day I’ll Fly Away.”
Lee Ritenour has always been considered a very good, versatile guitarist, but clearly he is on his way toward becoming a great one. Both on his fine new album “This Is Love” for his i.e. label and live at the Bowl, Ritenour is transcending the contemporary jazz genre, playing exceptionally tasty and increasingly interesting guitar solos and finding strong material such as Sonny Rollins’ “Alfie’s Theme” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de Beber” to work with. Alas, he seems to be leagues ahead of most of his band in sheer musicality; the contrast between Ritenour’s inventiveness and Eric Marienthal’s torrents of saxophone cliches was unnerving.
On one level, a Bowl-goer could take some pleasure in how well consummately suave showman Grover Washington Jr. works his audience. He knows who they are, what they want, and he played them like a virtuoso. For a while, Washington offered a few different twists to his act: a relatively straight-ahead, soulful “Nature Boy” and a sassy revival of “Soulful Strut” being the high points. But inevitably, he ran through a string of his pounding fuzak hits, a treadmill enlivened only by his use of all four sizes of saxophones. Many in the crowd were ecstatic, but the verdict wasn’t unanimous.