Bandleader and bassist Christian McBride did his homework well and had an 18-piece, brass-heavy band ready to re-create James Brown’s 1970 big-band odyssey “Soul on Top” at the Bowl Wednesday. The Godfather of Soul, however, was keen on using an instinctual rather than a studied approach, which was bracing when it worked and dicey when it didn’t.
Brown and McBride, the L.A. Phil’s creative chair for jazz, romped through five jazzed-up versions of old R&B chestnuts, a Kurt Weill tune and a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., with the band hewing closely to the finessed accompaniment provided by the Louie Bellson Orchestra on the original disc.
Brown, using sheet music spread across several stands, employed a talk-sing vocal style on tunes he appeared to have the least familiarity with (“That’s My Desire,” Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Magic”) and went straight-forward when he felt confident (“Everyday I Have the Blues”). His vocal chords weren’t wholly complying with his intentions — he let out a hearty grunt to kick off “Kansas City” that was unmistakably JB, but when he reached back for one of his piercing screams, little emerged.
Bellson, the 81-year-old drummer, guested on “For Once in My Life,” and Brown gave the number a bit of free-wheeling vocal improvisation, riffing on the title and the phrase “you got to have something” in a way that captured Brown’s captivating ways with a lyric. Setting forced Brown to sing and phrase, two of his skills that haven’t diminished much at the age of 73.
One of the most powerful perfs on “Soul on Top” comes on an uptempo version of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” Unfortunately, the big band turned over the accompaniment to Brown’s regular band when they launched into the soul classic from 40 years ago. Tune was the highlight of Brown’s half-hour greatest hits section but unfortunately marred by the bizarre, melodramatic hand motions and vocal tics of featured femme warbler — and wife — Tommie Rae Hynie-Brown.
Far more impressive were his duet with singer Amy Christian on “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and Cynthia Moore’s soulful response to the feeler Brown puts out to his backup singers at nearly every show, “Can I scream?” He never let out one of those elongated yelps, and the current version of his band generated only lukewarm heat on “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”