A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2010 Hollywood Bowl Jazz series kicked off on July 7 with performances celebrating the glorious tangle of influences that produced and continue to develop jazz music worldwide. The star-studded, soul-stirring lineup included Cameroonian bassist and vocalist Richard Bona, New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard in collaboration with LA’s own Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and Nigerian Afrobeat artist/activist Femi Kuti with his 13-man band, The Positive Force.

As Richard Bona and his six musicians layer hot, slippery, overlapping rhythms, the bright shades of bossa nova, jazz and funk burst into the gray twilight and seem to push the heavy cloud cover far from the Hollywood hillside. Bona and company fade out riffing on Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” while the stage rotates to deliver Terence Blanchard’s ensemble front and center. As the sky deepens to black, the bright, easy energy of Bona’s set now focuses to a single, searingly radiant point. In white spotlight, Blanchard’s Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan pulls what sounds like a rushing, hesitating farewell from the keys in Aaron Parks’ achingly beautiful “Ashé,” and Blanchard joins him with gently throbbing trumpet.

After such gripping intensity, the entrance of dancers in Choices – choreographed by Lula Washington to excerpts from Blanchard’s new album – initially feels disappointingly dissipated. Scattered thinly across the vast stage space, the dancers’ serpentine arms and languid poses don’t quite connect with Dr. Cornel West’s recorded reflections: “justice is what love looks like in public … braininess falls short of what it means to be human and making the right choices.”

But then a compelling conversation between movement and music emerges; dancers echo Blanchard’s running, trilling trumpeting with surging shakes side to side, and later on, a vertical throw of the arms ricochets through the group as unpredictably as the notes ring out in Almazan’s piano solos. In a setting that naturally overpowers the human form, Washington’s work resonates where she partners effectively with the surrounding forces to reach us through the distance. When a wave of twirls sweeps dancers across the stage in a blur of swirling white just as a gust of wind rolls off the hillside and through the Bowl, the effect is sublime.

West intensifies the choice of “what kina human being you gonna be” by asking in the same breath, “how do we prepare for death?” Our ultimate limitation heightens the significance of each decision, and Washington eloquently suggests this truth by distilling the action to a single, focused duet. Here, deliberate gestures – by turns passionate, fearful, and painstakingly careful – carry tremendous weight, and the couple periodically cracks under the pressure, circling their arms wildly to cast off the load.

Music, words and movement surge and crash together in a final collage evoking the “history of black people in America.” Dancers fly onstage with exuberant Lindy kicks, and a woman in turquoise responds to Blanchard’s rhythms with jumps like hiccups – bent forward at the waist and arms hanging loose in the West African style that lies at the root of American jazz, tap and modern dance. “Hope … Katrina … black bodies hanging from southern trees,” West’s deluge of words suggests endurance rather than resolution, and the dancers’ flapping, stomping, grooving exit and the band’s final blast testify to this spirit.

Headliners Femi Kuti & The Positive Force close out the evening with biting social commentary, friendly call and response song, raging horns, pulsating rhythms that accelerate and sustain at impossible speeds, and remarkable dancing that feeds off and fuels it all. All the band members dance, but the three women who sing backup dance incessantly – skittering on the balls of their feet, jumping into low turns, and miraculously producing contrasting, shifting rhythms in feet, knees, hips, rib cage, arms. The movement reveals musical qualities my ears can’t access, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience jazz as a fully embodied form.

Jazz at the Bowl 2010 continues July 14 with Smokey Robinson and Lizz Wright, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre next performs as part of the Grand Performances series, on July 30 at California Plaza in downtown LA.