Wednesday night's Jazz at the Bowl concert was titled "The Art of the Combo"--an effort on the part of John Clayton, the series' artistic director, to transform the giant venue into an appropriate setting for intimate, small-group jazz sounds.
And it was, for the most part, a striking success, largely because the performers--the Ray Brown Trio, the John Pizzarelli Trio and the George Shearing Quintet--were all firmly based in the readily accessible jazz mainstream.
The Brown group is yet another installment in the veteran bassist's long string of piano, bass and drum trios, this time featuring the piano work of the talented Larry Fuller.
Performing in the crisp, carefully crafted style long associated with Brown's trios, they offered an entertaining set of material ranging from a rhythmically perky "Jada" through a lovely arrangement of "Time After Time" to a climactic Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn medley.
Precision often seemed to prevail over passion in the ensemble passages, but there were enough blues-drenched expositions from Fuller and brawny solo passages from Brown to keep the entertaining set flowing.
Pizzarelli and Shearing, separated in age by decades, nonetheless both reached into the '40s and '50s for inspiration. In the case of Pizzarelli, it was through a revival of the Nat King Cole style; for Shearing, it was a revisit to his own famous quintet sound of the bebop era.
Pizzarelli had the greatest success, in part because he brought so much youth and enthusiasm to songs such as "Let There Be Love," "These Foolish Things" and "Paper Moon," in part because of the seamless musical togetherness of his trio--brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass and Ray Kennedy on piano. Add to that his versatility, coaxing a remarkable array of sounds out of his seven-string guitar: powerful rhythmic strumming; mobile, fast-moving chords; single-note lines based on string harmonics; scat singing in unison with his guitar lines.
And, if that wasn't enough, there was Pizzarelli's stylish singing--emerging, as with Diana Krall, via the sort of close interface with the music that can only come from an instrumentalist-vocalist.
Shearing recapped much of the material on his current album, re-creating the warm and supple piano-guitar-vibes melodies of his early years in tunes such as "Fly Me to the Moon," "Speak Low," "Sunday, Monday or Always," and his own jazz classic, "Lullaby of Birdland."
The results were warmly appealing, if a bit lacking in energy, ignited primarily by the imaginative guitar work of Reg Schwager and Shearing's occasional breakthroughs into the brisk bop lines that made his youthful playing so appealing.