Jazz Greats Outshine Boz Scaggs at the Bowl: Concert Review

Ben Wener
An off night from Mr. “Lowdown” was easily trumped by masterful performances from GRP mainstays.

Too-brief, but sterling, set from Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour should have been the main attraction at the landmark venue.

It isn’t often — or ever — that a rendition of “Happy Birthday” steals the show at the Hollywood Bowl. But it definitely did Wednesday night in a moment of serene beauty amid an ill-fitting triple bill that found flat and fumbling headliner Boz Scaggs following a note-perfect turn from jazz legends Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour.

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After the frets-caressing half of that longtime collaborative team pointed out several birthdays in the duo’s midst — including the 67th that very day for their bassist, prolific studio giant Abraham Laboriel — Grusin, who crossed the octogenarian threshold just three weeks ago, turned to his grand piano for an impromptu, expertly improvised version of the most widely sung song in the English language. The crowd, roughly 8,600 strong, sat in rapt silence as the 12-time Grammy-grabbing maestro delicately inverted the melody and sumptuously enhanced its basic chords as only an Oscar-winning composer could, his every nuance suggesting orchestrations at his fingertips.

Such celebratory asides, usually instigated by audiences, not artists, tend to be the worst kind of time-wasting filler. In Grusin’s still-nimble hands, what could have been complete cliché was instead utterly sublime. He might well have reinvented “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” while he was at it, but instead he made self-deprecating remarks. “I want to thank these kids for letting me come out and play with them,” he said of 62-year-old Ritenour and the rest, including supremely skilled Chris Coleman, the happiest drummer you’ll ever see behind a kit. “They try to make sure I'm off the stage in time for my bedtime.”

Frankly, this Bowl program could have done with more from that combo – or enchanting Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, whose evening-opening half-hour of authentic bossa nova and trad jazz (a sprightly take on the standard “I Thought About You” stood out) went down as merely an appetizer. The 50 minutes from Grusin and Ritenour also flew by, with time enough for only five pieces. The former shined on a placid, lovely handling of “Waltz for Carmen” and a rousing take on another signature composition, “Mountain Dance,” which managed to sound both neo-classical and steeped in New Orleans heritage, often within the same solo. Ritenour, meanwhile, was equally virtuosic, whether producing smooth, full-bodied Wes Montgomery-esque tones for “Wes Bound” or strapping on a sunburst Gibson to get grittier during Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam.”

If only the generally reliable Scaggs had risen to the same level, this would have been a most memorable jazz-rock hybrid package. Instead, the veteran six-stringer with the buttery (some might say Muppets-y) croon delivered a hopelessly weak set as patchy as a cat with mange.

Perhaps intimidated by the master-class display that preceded them, his not-incapable five-man band looked like lost animals about to get crushed on the highway; at several points they flubbed, sliding into changes instead of nailing them and rarely establishing momentum. It didn’t help, of course, that the 70-year-old NoCal star devoted so much of his 10-song turn to his latest album, Memphis, a rich homage to that city’s sound (heavy on early ’70s Al Green) that nonetheless provided one torpid selection after another in Hollywood. Dreariest of all: a mid-set, sit-down stretch begun with a croaked take on Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” (Scaggs just couldn’t hit Brook Benton’s deep bass bits) and worsened with a listless, almost sleep-inducing “Corrina, Corrina,” which could have used more of the fire Taj Mahal lights beneath that country-blues staple.

Once the group dug into their leader’s definitive work, ’76’s quintuple-platinum star-maker Silk Degrees, fans grew more responsive as things started to click: “Harbor Lights” had fleeting moments of shimmer, “Lowdown” felt stronger in its bridges than its verses. “Miss Sun,” a hit from 1980, fared best of all, the band finally connecting with confidence as backing vocalist Conesha Owens (aka “Ms. Monét”) added a hearty roar and some playful scatting. But as drummer Gene Lake kicked off a planned zip through “What Can I Say” after that, Scaggs, noting the shortage of time before curfew, abruptly aborted it, calling instead for “Lido Shuffle” to conclude. Only problem: in his hurry, he began by singing off-key, and his players, seemingly thrown by the sudden change, failed to find their footing on a straightforward tune most classic-rock cover bands have performed better any night this week.

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“Famous moments in showbiz,” Scaggs quipped before racing into that trainwreck. That’s one way of writing it off. A more accurate way of viewing it? A squandered opportunity for an unassuming great to really shine.

Set lists:

Boz Scaggs:

Down the Drain
Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl
Dry Spell
Rainy Night in Georgia
Corrina, Corrina
Gone Baby Gone
Harbor Lights
Miss Sun
Lido Shuffle

Dave Grusin & Lee Ritenour:

The Village
Wes Bound
Waltz for Carmen
Happy Birthday to You (Grusin solo)
Mountain Dance
Freeway Jam