Though everyone's heart was in exactly the right place for the all-star tribute to Louis Armstrong that lighted up the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night, it was initially tough to shake a mild, underlying frustration.
It had nothing to do with the talents shown by the concert's ringmaster, veteran keyboard conjurer Dr. John, or his rotating cast of master-level guest musicians, which included the Blind Boys of Alabama, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater in a concert that appeared with a different cast in New York last year.
It was more of a sense that so many of those assembled -- who were surely well-suited for a spirited look back -- were equally adept at looking forward with recent or upcoming albums of new material that, by nature of the night's structure, had to go untouched this time around. (Payton performs Aug. 8 at the Mint, which will also host Blanchard in September.)
So as tempting as it was to imagine hearing tastes of Dr. John's revitalizing 2012 album or the stirring records released by Payton and Blanchard this year (along with a forthcoming album from Blind Boys of Alabama produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver), the show belonged to Satchmo. Although this, of course, wasn't a bad place to be either.
Similar in spirit to the L.A. Philharmonic's previous shows that invited artists to celebrate an artist's catalog -- the Herbie Hancock-led "Joni's Jazz" from 2011 immediately came to mind -- the concert dubbed "Props to Pops" may not have held the same genre-mashing surprises of that Joni Mitchell tribute, but its high points were equally strong.
Fairly synonymous with the gumbo of bayou funk, R&B and jazz that makes up the sound of the Big Easy, Dr. John is already a walking tribute to nightcrawling New Orleans, and maybe that's why the show needed time to heat up at sunset despite a heavy-grooved take on "What a Wonderful World" balanced by a six-piece horn section. Followed by a decidedly menacing take on "Do You Call That a Buddy," the results were rich, but somewhat mannered, as if you could picture a scene from HBO's Crescent City tribute "Treme" being filmed somewhere in the upper boxes.
Though his keyboard playing was mostly understated all night, Dr. John was in remarkable voice with his trademark growl, but it wasn't until Bridgewater took the lead on "The Nearness of You" that the evening found another gear as a trio. With Dr. John's piano rambling behind Bridgewater, Payton gradually slid alongside her with a bright arc from his trumpet that fell to a rumble as the two freely faced off with a welcome raw energy.
Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval established himself as a crowd favorite with a series of high-pitched punches and runs on "Tight Like That," which was spiked with a bold Spanish break from Cuban rapper Telmary Diaz. Her rapid-fire addition threatened to steal the show, particularly on a lethally funky re-imagining of "Mack the Knife," which was matched by a mean solo from Blanchard that, together with a trebly guitar pulse from Kevin Turner, recalled Louis Armstrong by way of Curtis Mayfield.
Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave cooked through "Blues in the Night," and Anthony Hamilton's soulful vocal built to a slow burn on "Motherless Child" with New Orleans trumpeter Wendell Brunious. Hamilton's elastic voice also highlighted a funk-charged "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," whose keening organ began taking the Bowl to church.
The idea was completed at the night's close, which began with an expected turn at "When the Saints Go Marching In" that started with a bracing shade of funereal darkness atop the vocals of the Blind Boys of Alabama. The song easily gave way to a rambunctious "Down by the Riverside" that at last pulled a few of the more spirited faithful at the Bowl into the aisle with twirling hankies and bobbing parasols in hand. Pops would have loved it.
Twitter: @chrisbartonCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun