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Femi Kuti and Positive Force, Terence Blanchard With The Lula Washington Dancers @ Hollywood Bowl 7/7/10

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femi kuti by luke robinson (Small).jpg

Photo of Femi Kuti at Glastonbury Festival June 2010, courtesy of Luke Robinson via Flickr.

Nigerian bandleader Femi Kuti made a booty-shaking return to the Hollywood Bowl on July 7. If the Bowl’s “Jazz Series” subscribers in the boxes down front seemed uncertain how to respond to the sheer physicality of the performers on stage, the benches above them looked more like a party, a place where one could get physically overtaken by a groove and end up stuck there for the duration.

It’s been nearly two decades since Femi’s father Fela Kuti, father of Afrobeat and one of the major figures in 20th century African music, ceased performing and recording, disappearing from public view before eventually passing away. Femi’s made a great attempt to keep the family store open and perpetuate his father’s traditions, although his songs carry their own, distinctly modernized and hip-hop informed flavor. Some elements are familiar - the snaking, repetitive guitar lines that tie the songs together as the texture gradually shifts courtesy of a crack horn section and percussionist, Kuti switching off between a variety of instruments and barking percussive, sometimes directly political lyrics. But the visions are more compact, most of the numbers topping out at around ten minutes, compared to Fela’s usual twenty-five, and betray a weakness for the tight, bass-heavy arrangements of American funk.

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Terence Blanchard was last heard on the Bowl stage last summer, as part of the Miles Davis/ Gil Evans celebration that included a stunning live performance of Sketches of Spain. This night, performing with his own group, he played straight-ahead jazz with a grace that seemed to shrink the Bowl’s massive environs. This really is one of the best large venues in which to hear delicate, sophisticated music. The first half of the program impressed mightily with thrilling improvisations from pianist Fabian Almazan and young-gun saxophonist Brice Winston. The collaboration with the Lula Washington Dancers, featuring songs from Blanchard’s 2009 album Choices, was somewhat less successful in the big room; TV screens don’t really cut it for interpretive dance.