George Shearing opened up one of the nights at the Hollywood Bowl this summer with his new quintet, bringing back the sound, if not the personnel, of his popular group of the 1950s and 1960s. With vibraphonist Steve Nelson and guitarist Louis Stewart also taking occasional solos, Shearing was in top form and typically charming on such songs as "East of the Sun," "I Hear Music," "Love Walked In," and of course "Lullaby of Birdland."
Easily the low point of the evening was Peggy Lee's endless hour on stage. The problem is that essentially she has no voice left (this is how Billie Holiday might have sounded if she had made it to 1970) and does not seem to realize it. To hear her do songs such as "Fever," "That Old Feeling," and "Why Don't You Do Right" with a range of about three notes was quite sad. The audience was respectful but clearly dismayed. Since Peggy Lee presumably doesn't need the money, why doesn't someone tell her?
In contrast, the apparently ageless Mel Torme closed off the evening, and his voice is at its peak... unless he continues to improve. Considering that he followed Peggy Lee, it was ironic that Torme started off with "You Make Me Feel So Young." He scatted up a storm as usual on the faster pieces, but it was the slow ballads, during which he held some very long notes in his beautiful voice, that were most impressive. Torme's arrangements for the backing trio were full of variety, and he received a well-deserved standing ovation. Shearing returned for Torme's encore, a tender duo version of "It Might As Well Be Spring."
The lineup for the August 16 Hollywood Bowl concert seemed almost too good to be true (Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Joshua Redman, and Wynton Marsalis), but overall it failed to live up to its potential. Pianist Rubalcaba, in a trio with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lewis Nash, had the most consistent set, alternating ballads with bop standards and often showing great self-restraint. A high point was the virtuosic treatment that he gave "Ah-Leu-Cha." In contrast, saxist Joshua Redman had an off day. Maybe his early momentum is starting to run down, but his quartet performance never really caught fire. His original "Never End" sounded suspiciously like Charlie Haden's "First Song," and although he took an excellent cadenza on that piece, there was little that Redman played that Red Holloway (much less James Carter) could not have done better.
Near the end of the set Redman gave such a lavish introduction to his guest, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, that even if Payton could play on the level of Arturo Sandoval, it would have been difficult for him to live up to the praise. As it was, Payton hit more than his share of clams, fouled up a tradeoff with Redman, and did not make a very good impression during his two songs. Wynton Marsalis sounded fine when he played, but the masterful trumpeter, except for a later two-chorus solo, performed only on "The Legend of Buddy Bolden." Otherwise he stuck to conducting his all-star big band through the ten movements of his "Mastery of Melancholy." The music was colorful, sort of a fourth dimensional look at Duke Ellington, and covered a wide variety of moods and styles, but Wynton's near-absence was disappointing. A strange night of music.
Benny Carter turned eighty-eight in August and, if anything, seems to sound even better now than when he was eighty-seven! He celebrated his birthday all week long at the Jazz Bakery with the assistance of pianist Roger Kellaway, bassist John Heard, and drummer Sherman Ferguson. On the night I caught him, the altoist (who miraculously walks and talks as if he were thirty-eight rather than eighty-eight) played his usual repertoire, "On Green Dolphin Street," "Misty," his own "Only Trust Your Heart," and "Perdido." Carter has a beautiful tone, creative and subtle ideas, and a strong sense of swing in a style largely unchanged in sixty years. Kellaway, who was tasteful when supporting Carter, really cut loose during his solos and particularly in his dazzling trio features "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "My One and Only Love."
Bill Holman has long ranked as one of the top arrangers in Jazz although he tends to get overlooked in polls because he lives in Los Angeles. To celebrate the release of his recent CD, A View from the Side, Holman's orchestra performed at the Jazz Bakery. Bassist Dave Carpenter was unavoidably late, forcing the band to play without him during much of the first set; pianist Rich Eames's left hand had to work overtime. Despite that, it was an enjoyable evening. Holman's typically overcrowded ensembles (which often have so much going on) are quite exciting. With such soloists as altoists Lanny Morgan and Bill Perkins, trumpeter Ron Stout, tenors Pete Christlieb and Ray Herrmann, and the high-note work of lead trumpeter Frank Szabo, this is a mighty band. A special high point was the happy hysteria of the shout chorus on "No Joy in Mudville."
David Sanborn's most recent recording, Pearls (Elektra), features his distinctive alto on ballads backed by strings arranged mostly by Johnny Mandel. At the Greek Theater he played a variety of standards including "This Masquerade," "Smoke Get in Your Eyes," and an intense "Everything Must Change" accompanied by a full orchestra plus a big band. During the second half of the set Sanborn shifted to some of his older rhythm and blues hits, giving the strings little to do. The big band (which had thirteen horns but not a single solo) was largely wasted. But to compensate, Sanborn's sincere melodic playing was a joy to hear.
Karrin Allyson, who now has three CDs out on Concord, may not technically be a new voice, but she seems to be on the brink of a major breakthrough. Making her Los Angeles debut at the Jazz Bakery in a trio with guitarist Danny Embry, bassist Bob Bowman, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, Allyson always sounded relaxed and cool, even when scatting furiously. She also proved to be an expressive interpreter of lyrics. Highlights of her two sets included "How High the Moon," "Night and Day," "Love Me or Leave Me," and "No More Blues." Karrin Allyson is a name to watch for, and I predict a significant future for her.