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Review

Gloria Estefan gives standards new life at Hollywood Bowl

Gloria Estefan sang the standards with uncommon energy at the Hollywood Bowl
Gloria Estefan, with Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and others, samples Great American Songbook with spirit

Gloria Estefan happily took up every opportunity to date herself in her concert Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

“That was my first No. 1 record -- a blast from the past,” she said after singing “Anything for You” to conclude a medley of her late-'80s pop ballads. During “Bad Boy,” by her old group Miami Sound Machine, she cried out “1986!” in reference to the year of that single’s release.

And when her husband and producer, Emilio Estefan, appeared onstage after the singer mentioned that he’d inspired her recent recording of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” she told the audience proudly that they’d been married for 36 years.

“That’s 150 years in Hollywood,” she added.

For another artist, the emphasis on age might’ve been a kind of preemptive strike -- a way to justify an old-fashioned performance. But Estefan’s show, the first of two at the Bowl as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Americas & Americans Festival, wasn’t old-fashioned at all.

On a night that drew freely on the rhythms and juxtapositions of modern life, the 56-year-old seemed simply to be laying out the depth of her experience.

The concert's up-to-date energy was especially remarkable given that it was built around “The Standards,” Estefan’s 2013 dip into the Great American Songbook. More often than not, the standards album is where inspiration goes to retire; pop stars of various persuasions -- Rod Stewart, for instance -- have made plenty of dull ones lately that tell us little we didn’t already know about the standards or the pop star.

Yet Estefan’s record -- with “Good Morning Heartache,” “Embraceable You” and all the rest -- reveals a husky sensuality unfamiliar from her up-tempo hits such as “Conga” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” And the vivid arrangements by pianist Shelly Berg make these durable tunes feel fresh, like music still open to interpretation.

Accompanied Friday by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and a small band that included Berg and guitarist Dean Parks, Estefan sang “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” over a fluttering 6/8 groove and located the sense of discovery in a swinging “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

In “What a Wonderful World” she summoned the song’s optimism as well as its knowing fantasy. And she connected a salsa-fied “You Made Me Love You” to her own “Mi Tierra,” the title track from a strong 1993 album about her roots in Cuba.

As that mash-up made clear, Estefan wasn’t separating the strands of her work here. One reason the concert had such spirit was that she kept mixing styles and eras, as when she transitioned nimbly from her pop hit “1-2-3,” with Parks’ chattering funk licks, to a lush “The Way You Look Tonight.” She also remade “Conga” as a moody torch song and did Charlie Chaplin’s often dreary “Smile” with Spanish lyrics she said she’d written.

For a singer who first found fame synthesizing elements from Latin and American forms, the fusion was as natural as it was welcome.

Estefan projected this vigor with the help of some actual young people too. Midway through the show, just before intermission, she exchanged the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, the student group overseen by Gustavo Dudamel; it backed Estefan for a propulsive “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” that also featured Estefan’s 19-year-old daughter Emily on guitar.

Later, Estefan ended Friday's gig the way she ends “The Standards,” with Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh’s “Young at Heart.” It sounded fine; Estefan navigated the song’s tricky intervals with assurance. But the lyric about the stimulating value of an open mind was only reiterating what Estefan had already demonstrated.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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