Those who crowd into the Hollywood Bowl on one given Sunday in August for the JVC Jazz Festival know exactly what to expect: a marathon injection of so-called smooth jazz. And with one refreshing exception, so it went during this edition, where there was a steadily rising degree of listenability that lasted at least until the middle of the final set, in part a tribute to the Hon. Robert Nesta Marley, O.M.
Marley’s music is at last beginning to receive a lot of attention from jazzers — most notably Monty Alexander — and not only does it hold up under the scrutiny, it gets an especially visceral reaction from audiences, no matter how it’s played. Even though Lee Ritenour — whose latest album project happens to be “A Twist of Marley” (GRP) — and his assembly of headliners thoroughly homogenized the idiom within a mild R&B stew, reverting to the authentic reggae feeling only on “I Shot the Sheriff,” the material pushed many hot buttons in the crowd.
Elsewhere, Ritenour continued to mine an impressively deep pocket; his solo on Wes Montgomery’s “Boss City” was the work of a swinging master guitarist. But saxophonist Gerald Albright’s shredding of “Georgia on My Mind” had an ominous effect; the more tasteless he became, the more the crowd loved it.
The tall, lean Bay Area-based guitarist Joyce Cooling led off the fest with a thumping set in which everything sounded pretty much the same; she’s got good chops but also an addiction to the harmonic/rhythmic cliches of the smooth jazz trade. Saxophonist Ronnie Laws’ set (minus the promised flood of Laws relatives except for sister Eloise) began promisingly with a percolating rendition of Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here” and continued with a solo passage that cleverly merged Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” into “Friends and Strangers,” only to stop cold with some solo shenanigans from his sidemen.
Brenda Russell had the best-paced presentation of the night, her rounded, penetrating voice riding over Latin-accented grooves and a straight samba, taking off with a wild rush of gospel fervor on her hit “So Good, So Right” and thoroughly inhabiting the phrasing of Sting on “She Walks This Earth” (for which she wrote lyrics).
The sole exception to the smooth jazz theme, without apologies, was Joe Sample, who came out bopping with an acoustic piano trio on “Texas Two-Step” before revisiting the Crusaders-era “Chain Reaction” and solo hits like “Ashes to Ashes” and the sly “Hippies on a Corner.” But Sample doesn’t bow to piano trio cliches, either; his muscular style continues to have its own distinctive stamp.