Guitarist Ali Farka Toure offered lessons in nuance and subtlety when he opened the JVC Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl program Sunday.
In a night that included jazz fusion headliners Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, pop guitarist Norman Brown and contemporary keyboardists David Benoit and George Duke, the Mali-based Toure’s four-piece band made an argument for quieter, more varied pleasures in contrast to the bombast and backbeat that followed.
The greatest difference between Toure’s sound and that of the following acts was generated by the rhythm sections. Backed by a supporting guitarist, a conga-playing percussionist and a second drummer who tapped out rhythms on the calabash, Toure’s gentle yet moving 35-minute set proved music doesn’t have to be loud to be engaging. The involved, varied beats over which Toure suspended simple guitar lines and exotic cries from his single-string violin-like njarka stood in sharp relief to the predominantly repetitive rhythms and extreme volumes offered by Carlton, Brown and the rest.
Underscoring those differences was the segue between Toure’s set and that of guitarist Brown. Toure’s enchanting music faded as the Bowl stage revolved, revealing Brown’s band playing a driving funk number at top volume. The magic generated by the African musician evaporated.
Brown concentrated on covers of tunes from Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson, bringing George Benson-flavored touches to each as he sang in unison with his guitar. Rhythmic treatments varied little as Brown moved from big beat to big beat.
Carlton and Ritenour, playing songs from their new duo album and each taking a solo spot to revisit past achievements, melded their sounds in surprisingly sympathetic style although their material suffered from the same lack of rhythmic and melodic invention. Carlton’s harder, more direct sound played well against Ritenour’s more lush tones, but predictable material kept both guitarists reined in.
Benoit, playing in a trio, opened his set promisingly with selections from Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi, but then fell into a pattern of insipid melody and tempos as he added guitar and saxophone to the mix. Keyboardist Duke was most disappointing of all, playing snatches of songs he’s recorded or produced over the last 30 years, never once settling into the kind of hard grooves that early on earned him his funky reputation.