Co-Curator Kamasi Washington (Courtesy photo)

At the 2023 Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival, the sun reared its head to the relief of thousands of jazz festival goers, shining brilliantly on the stage and off. The festival, celebrating 43 years of jazz over Father’s Day weekend, brought out the faithful and introduced newbies to two days of the world’s finest music.

Co-curated by two titans of music, Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington did not disappoint, and you knew they wouldn’t as they brought musically diverse and magical groups of artists to the Bowl stage. Both artists welcomed the opportunity to co-curate the festival for the first time.

Internationally renowned pianist and composer, the owner of Oscar hardware and 14 Grammy awards, Hancock, the undisputed pioneer of modern jazz and improvisation, lavished effusive praise on his partner, Kamasi Washington.

“I was thrilled when the LA Phil asked me to co-curate this festival with Kamasi and explore his extraordinary artistic vision,” Hancock said. The co-curators were intentional in their efforts to include both emerging and established artists. It was their collected visions that audiences would leave this year’s festival feeling “uplifted and inspired,” a goal they certainly achieved.

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Hancock continues to serve as the LA Philharmonic Creative Chair for Jazz and has performed at the Bowl for an impressive seven decades. Hancock did not perform during the weekend but will return to the Bowl on August 23, celebrating the works of the late saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

From the moment Kamasi Washington graced the stage, you knew he would bring the soul, literally and figuratively. Known for his respect and praise of other artists, Washington did not hold back as he paid homage to Hancock.

“I’m so honored to co-curate with the great Herbie Hancock. Herbie is one of the greatest musicians.” Washington’s hope for the collaboration? “To create a one-of-a-kind experience that will leave the audience with excitement, joy, life, soul, and most of all, great music.”

And the joy began with the comedic stylings of returning festival host Arsenio Hall. He brought his humorous thoughts, immediately saying things from the stage that reflected what everyone was thinking. A sample – “I can’t wait for the night to come to enjoy the smell of the legal incense!” And this, “It’s Juneteenth, y’all, but they are trying to hide it from us.”

Jazz Festival Host Arsenio Hall (Courtesy photo)

Many Hall – ism were said throughout both days, leaving us anticipating the next one!

A lovely touch was Hall’s honoring the fathers in the audience; it was clear that he loved and embraced fatherhood as he introduced the audience to his pride and joy, his son, Arsenio Hall Jr.

DAY 1: The day kicked off with the always uber-talented students from LA County School for the Arts (LACHSA), the Big Band, under the direction of Alex Hahn and Vocal Jazz, directed by Pat Bass and Dornell Carr.

The Big Band performing students were Ian Fleck, Dylan Cisneros, Peter Vaquez, Haziel Gonzales, Michael Clark, Evan Dexter, Edward Maqueos, Brandon Morales, Erre Maqueos, Julai Chiu, David Zhao, William Schwartzman, Stellan Swanlund, Darien Alizieri, Joaquin Garde, Arlo Erwin, Johnny Mizenko, and Lorezno Luppi.

LACHSA (Courtesy photo)

As one would expect, the proud parents were out in full force, and the audience showed their appreciation for the talents and work of the young students. The musical future of Jazz and Big Band is red-hot as the LACHSA Jazz Vocal performers delighted the audience. The jazz vocal performers were Chelsea Chiu, Aila Gibbs, Candance Porter, Gabriel Oliva, Lawrence Leeway, Drew Tillman, Kennedy Benson, Natalia Rubio, Alexandra Pederson, Nahla Aubry, Hadley Granger, Nate Schinnerer, and Adam Hirose.

The Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble at UCLA was next. It didn’t seem right to call these performers students as they effortlessly performed like seasoned veterans. The audience loved their interpretation of Burt Bacharach’s  “Say a Little Prayer” and Javier Santiago and Emiliano Lasansky’s interpretation of Darynn Dean’s “Black Woman.”

Lionel and Gretchen (Courtesy photo)

You are missing a sweet treat if you have never heard of Lionel Loueke and Gretchen Parlato. Grammy-nominated Parlato and acclaimed guitarist Loueke met in 2001 at USC’s Thelonious Monk Institute, renamed in 2019 and now called the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, based at UCLA. Since then, the friends have collaborated and recently released their first album, “Lean In.” They are an exceptional talent to behold, and Hancock, who has nurtured both artists, must be bursting with pride.

From Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” to Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” and Parlato and Loueke’s penned “Lean In,”; the rhythm of Loueke’s West African roots, he is Benin-born and LA native Parlato who has an affinity for Brazilian music was heard throughout their set. And the added treat was Parlato’s husband, Mark Guiliana, on percussion. The intersection of their natural talents leaves you with a warmth that encircles your entire body and transports your imagination to your favorite parts of the world.

Poncho Sanchez (Courtesy photo)

And then the stage belonged to master percussionist Poncho Sanchez who said it’s been “a minute” since he played at the Bowl. He was missed more by the audience that found themselves standing and swaying, getting their salsa on, during his entire set. His interpretation of Hancock’s “Watermelon Man’ thrilled the audience, and his set received a well-deserved standing ovation, Everyone singing with him, “Hey, it’s alright.”

The jazz supergroup Aziza was next. The artists that make up the supergroup are bassist and Grammy Award winner Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and Grammy-nominated drummer Harland. They were masterful.

Aziza (Courtesy photo)

Grammy award winner Samara Joy took the stage, a pure delight. Her infectious smile drew the crowd in immediately as she expressed her happiness at the many ‘firsts’ she has experienced in her very young life. First, she graduated from college in 2021, magna cum laude, signed her first record deal in 2022, won two Grammy’s in 2023 for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal, performed in Rio de Janeiro in 2023, a trip she loved so much, that she sang a song in Portuguese just for the Bowl crowd, and of course making her, very first appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2023. Whew…and hearing this wonderful songstress who left you feeling that her artistry will be heard for many years. It may have been her first Bowl appearance but not her last.

Samara Joy (Courtesy photo0

Who knew that St. Paul and the Broken Bones would rock the Bowl. Originally scheduled to appear at the Bowl before the Pandemic, this group smashed many stereotypes. Once lead vocalist Paul Janeway (aka St. Paul) opens his mouth, you can’t believe this fine, R&B voice is coming from him. It was a delightful surprise. And he dances without fear of judgment, and it is refreshing. Ask any audience members who sat in the bleacher section how they enjoyed his performance as he decided to put on a show right there in front of those upper seats…it was awesome to watch. The band hails from Birmingham, Alabama, but Angelenos, we will certainly see them again.

St. Paul (Courtesy photo)

Kamasi Washington – what can I write that hasn’t already been written about this soulful artist, the genius that is Washington? His entrance on the stage reminded me of the late Pharaoh Sanders, the movement of an African king who knew who he was and what he wanted. A native of Los Angeles, Washington, he has played with everyone (almost) – Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, George Duke, Raphael Saadiq, Chaka Khan, and many more.

There is nothing that Washington cannot do. His performances are reminiscent of an African griot, he is undoubtedly a poet, and some have called him a prophetic messenger. His on-fire performance on the tenor saxophone began with “Miss Understanding,” followed by “Vi Lua Vi Sol” and “How I Became a Madman,” featuring his life partner and mother of his young daughter, North African singer Ami Taf Ra.

Kamasi and his father.
(Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)

Washington’s primarily instrumental set ended with a three-song medley; “Street Fighter Mas,” “Re Run,” and “Fists of Fury.” The appearance of his dad, saxophonist Rickey Washington playing beside his son only enhanced the weekend, and Kamasi could and did celebrate publicly the talents, sacrifices, and love received from his father. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Washington would turn the stage over to Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe, affectionately known as Bell Biv DeVoe or BBD. They brought memories of the 90s new jack swing era to the Bowl as they launched into all the favorites; “Dope,” “I thought it Was Me,” “Do Me,”  “Find A Way,” “Hot Tonite,”  “Run,” and of course “Something in Your Eyes,”  “Smile Again,” and their runaway hit “Poison,” that always brings everyone to their feet. It was the perfect ending to a fabulous day.

Bell Biv Devoe (Courtesy photo)

DAY 2: The young performers of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Beyond the Bell with special guest Howard University professor Charlie Young kicked the day off. Once again, the youth showed the way, performing enthusiastically and with the wisdom of veteran artists.

Known as the Father of Gospel Bass, Andrew Gouché & the Prayze Connection would bring the ‘Church’ to the stage on Sunday morning. A family affair for Gouché – his sister Jackie Gouché, nephews Davion Farris and Daniel’ D Smoke’ Farris, the winner of Netflix’s hip hop series Rhythm + Flow and niece, five-time Grammy-nominated Tiffany Gouché would usher in the praise and the audience willingly followed.

Grammy Award winner Gouché has played with Mary Mary and Michael Jackson and served as music director for Chaka Khan, to name a few. He is no stranger to the Bowl stage, but this was the first time he performed under his name.

Andrew Gouche (Courtesy photo)

Gouché began with “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Promise Keeper,”  “Me and Jesus Talked,” the Clark Sisters’ “You Brought the Sunshine,” and Fred Hammond’s “Let the Praise Begin” and “Blessed.” The USC Cardinal Divas dance team appeared with Gouché on several numbers, displaying their dance artistry.

From Richmond, Virginia, the quintet Butcher Brown performed a fusion of R&B and jazz on songs like “Around for a While,”  “Frontline,” and “It Was Me.” Butcher Brown is one of those rare gems of the festival, a group that you may not have heard but are happy they crossed your musical path.

Next was the Grammy-nominated Haitian group, Boukman Eksperyans, the latter Haitian Creole word for ‘experience.’ Proudly displaying the colors of the Haitian flag, the Port-au-Prince band derived the first half of its unique name from Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest. There was lots of joyous dancing as the group performed its crowd-pleasing set – “Jou Nou Revolie Granbwa IIe,” “Pi Wo,” “Zanset,” “Kalfou O!,” and Kem Pa Sote Wan Go Lo Tan Bou.” As the band left the stage, host Arsenio Hall tried his hand at drumming and led the transition with another Hall -ism, simply stating, “Chicken + Weed.”

The Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band, took the stage, and it was all about the horns on “Turn It Up” and “Rebel Rock.” The band was joined by master twerker, Big Freedia, who got the New Orleans bounce going with the help of the Cardinal Divas on “I Heard,” “NO Bounce,” and “Gin in My System.”

And then there was Digable Planets – yes, the 1990s group considered a standard bearer of hip-hop took the crowd on a musical journey performing “Where I’m From,” “Escapism (Getting Free),” “Nickel Bags,” “It’s Good to Be Here,” “Cool Breezes” and “Graffiti” before bringing the crowd to its feet with their mega-hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).”  It’s been thirty years since the release of their hit album “Reachin” (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and their Grammy win for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, but the group grooved at the Bowl proving that yes, they are still cool like dat.

Shoutout to the locals – the Compton Drummers and the Cardinal Divas of SC providing a soulful transition and ode to HBCUs everywhere. It was a fitting Juneteenth moment, celebrating the HBCU culture and the heritage of the African drums.

Ledisi showed us again why we love her! Looking beautiful in white, Ledisi, with her powerful vocals, kept it real with the audience as she talked of her early struggles in the music industry, “They told me I’m not good enough and I’m not pretty enough. Well, after 30 years, I’m still here.” Yes, indeed, Ledisi is not only here, and it’s easy to see why she is a 2021 Grammy Award winner for Best Traditional R&B Performance and has 14 Grammy nominations. She wowed the audience with her Grammy winner “Anything for You,” “Add to Me,” “Pieces of Me,” and “I Need to Know,” and of course, it wouldn’t be a Ledisi or jazz performance without some scatting, as she said, “It’s a jazz fest so you got to have some scatting,” and that she did on crowd favorite “Alright.”

And how do you close a festival filled with magical moments and great music? The co-curators devised one of the best concert closers, The West Coast Get Down. The group members are fantastic musicians in their own right and, amazingly, have been friends since childhood.

The West Coast Get Down is a collaborative group of musicians all born and raised in Los Angeles. Washington has said that as kids, they spent hours honing their craft in music, competing to see who spent the most hours practicing. On stage was Mike Mosely, the founder and upright bass player; Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr., on drums; Cameron Graves and Brandon Coleman on keys; Ryan Porter on trombone; Patrice Quinn, on vocals and Kamasi Washington on saxophone; the humble and spiritual leader of the group who closed the night with special guests Leon Bridges and Raphael Saadiq.

Pianist Cameron led the group with “Spaceship is Leaving,” “Adam and Eve,” and “Zelda.” Miles Mosley interpreted Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” and Patrice Quinn’s rendition of “Blackman” was hauntingly beautiful. Grammy winner Leon Bridges led a three-song medley and created a lovely jazz interplay with Washington’s “Born Again,” “Bad Bad News,” and “Kings and Queens.”

Washington thanked prolific writer, producer, and Grammy-winner Raphael Saadiq, playing the electric bass, for working with him in his earlier years as they performed Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running  to Me,” Saadiq’s “You’re the One I Like,” “Sunlight” and “Skyy, Can You Feel Me.”

And to end the night, the West Coast Get Down featured Mosley’s funky “Abraham,” and they would have to play John Coltrane, an artist that Washington admitted he was “obsessed” with and one who continues to inspire his artistry. Washington showed out on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” And another glorious Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival ended, music etched in minds and hearts, with hugs and high fives and the same heartfelt closing message from the masses – “See you next year.”