Gary Burton started the evening off--it says a lot about the strength of a bill when a artist like Gary Burton is the opener--with a brief but excellent set of cool jazz and mellow blues numbers. The set list drew heavily from last year's Generations album. Young guitarist Julian Lage was prominently featured, displaying astounding depth at an age when most guitar players are still working out the basics. Pianist and arranger Vadim Neselovskyi stood out as well with his graceful playing. The group was joined at the end by vocalist Karrin Allyson. Her choice of material to cover on stage, Joni Mitchell's "All I Want," likely reminded most male members of the audience of at least one girl they used to date; her choice of material with which to cover herself, a fairly diaphanous black gown, was no doubt suggestive to that demographic as well.
Immediately following this performance, the Bowl's stage rotated to reveal the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band. Poncho has become something like the Willie Nelson of Latin jazz, continually bringing in a stylistically diverse body of musicians to perform with him. Tonight's show featured appearances from vibraphonist Dave Samuels, vocalist Sam Moore, B3 maestro Joey DeFrancesco, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and one of the true pioneers of Latin jazz, pianist Eddie Palmieri. Playing a mix of classics and songs from his just released released Do It! CD, the Whittier-based conguero delivered his crack blend of hardcore salsa, Latin jazz and classic R&B. The set opened up with Samuels on stage in a tribute to Poncho's mentor Cal Tjader, followed by a tight rendition of "Tin Tin Deo." Moore came on for a duet with Sanchez on the old R&B hit "Hitch It To The Horse," Sanchez credibly serving as a de facto Dave with a strong, soulful voice and smooth dance moves in tandem with Sam. Palmieri's keyboard work stunned on his classic "Conmigo" and on the set closing rendition of Eddie Harris's "Cold Duck Time" which also featured nice work from De Francesco, Harrison & Samuels.
Following a brief intermission, The Concord Jazz All-Star Big Band took the stage, Quincy Jones conducting a brief instrumental overture before reminiscing, hilariously and touchingly in turn, over his late friend Ray Charles. The All-Star in the band's title was no mere hyperbole, the group including Gary Foster and Tom Scott among its line of saxes, a stellar trombone section including JB/Horny Horns veteran Fred Wesley, the redoubtable Los Angeles keyboard player Shelly Berg and drummer Gregg Field. Those taking the podium to sing songs made famous by Ray included Diane Schurr, Monica Mancini and Patti Austin, with Ellis Hall and Billy Preston playing piano in addition to their vocal work.
Austin, celebrating a birthday along with Charles, was the evening's most breathtaking singer, while Preston came closest to Charles stylistically in both of his aspects. Joining Preston on three of Charles' biggest hits were a special quartet of female singers in the role of the Raylettes: Allyson, Austin, Mancini and LaToya London. They all got into their parts, the women appropriately sassy on "Hit the Road, Jack" and wriggled seductively on "What'd I Say." The group also did a fine re-creation of Charles' arrangement of Hoagy Charmichael's "Georgia," though Preston's vocals came so close to Ray's that they at moments verged on parody; of course, Jamie Foxx rode that formula to an Oscar, so who am I to judge?
Great musical events are the norm at the Bowl, but this was a special night even by those standards. Ray Charles was a longtime favorite of Hollywood Bowl audiences, and his final LP Genius Loves Company is the most successful release ever on Concord Records. Quite fitting, then, for the label and the L.A. Philharmonic to collaborate on such a memorable evening of jazz in tribute to the Genius.