The difference between jazz and smooth jazz is the difference between theater and circus. Both serve as entertainment. Both require similar technical skills. But while jazz, like theater, encompasses the full range of feelings, smooth jazz, like the circus, concentrates on making you feel good.
So it was Sunday at the one-day circus that is the JVC Jazz Festival, Los Angeles-style. (JVC hosts six other jazz festivals across the United States and Canada, most multiple-day events.) With an evening sky as its big top, the four acts made a crowd of more than 13,000 at the Hollywood Bowl feel good and then some with dangerous solo stunts, impressive juggling skills, the occasional clown and ensemble acrobatics hoping to take your breath away.
The top-billed electric quartet of Fourplay--keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Larry Carlton--made for the best balancing act. Their crisp, closing set took the screwed-down rhythm section work of the preceding bands and tightened it another quarter-turn.
The sound of James' acoustic and electric keyboards, Carlton's creamy guitar and East's and Mason's crisp-cut funk, sometimes embellished with East's wordless vocals, carried a gleaming, sanitary sheen well suited to their scrubbed-clean material. Even guitarist Carlton's blues feature, certainly the set's only raw moment, had a happy-face feel about it.
Vocalist Will Downing and saxophonist Gerald Albright, collaborators on a recent CD, looked to the rhythm & blues roots of smooth jazz with a pop-styled set of ballads and beat tunes. Downing's mellow tones, though occasionally marred by amplification, were seductive in a pleading sort of way. He was overwhelmed in a duet with screamer Phil Perry. Albright received his biggest ovation for a passage he mimed but didn't actually play. Call it the silent solo.
Pianist David Benoit pulled material from the history of jazz piano and added contemporary sax and electric bass, guitar and keyboards. Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi were represented and the day had no more exciting moment than when Benoit played Brubeck's "Blue Rondo" at a hard jazz clip.
With his hat and penchant for carrying on out in the audience, lanky trumpeter Rick Braun was the afternoon's clown. Sometimes using a wah-wah pedal to modulate his sound, he recalled Freddie Hubbard's "Liquid Love" period of the '70s, especially on fluegelhorn. His solid beats, occasionally serious trumpet play and, of course, his antics got the crowd's attention.