|For the 29th straight year, the arrival of June meant that the Playboy Jazz Festival for a weekend would make the
historic Hollywood Bowl the temporary home for 18,000 partygoers. For many of the regular attendees, it almost does
not matter what groups are playing just so long as the party continues. While some of the more serious jazz fans get
bothered by the constant crowd noise, the erratic sound (why doesn’t Playboy at this point have superior sound
engineers who know what an acoustic bass is?) and the fact that quiet ballads are drowned out, those with a sense of
humor and a strong tolerance streak can enjoy a wide variety of music, most of it jazz. This year’s festival, even with its
ups and downs, was one of the strongest in years, particularly on Sunday.
Though relatively few saw it, Saturday’s 8 1/2 hour marathon began with one of the highpoints. The Eagle Rock High
School Jazz Ensemble, directed by Greg Samuel, featured Tyrie Levels, a talented young trumpeter. He recreated Rex
Stewart’s solo on Duke Ellington’s “Boy Meets Horn” (one of the strongest opening numbers ever in Playboy history)
and took a fine spot on “All Blues.” Remember his name for the future. Also, it was unusual getting to hear a high
school band that included three violins in its instrumentation.
Johnny Polanco Y Su Conjunto Amistad was a definite surprise. Polanco, who alternated between trombone, the tres
guitar, vibes and percussion in addition to joining in with the vocalists, mixed together salsa singing with Afro-Cuban
jazz in a very effective show. Comprised of two trumpets (including one who screamed out high notes), two
trombonists including Arturo Velasco, three saxophonists, flutist Artie Webb, piano, bass, congas, timbales and bongos
plus two singers and Polanco, the ensemble lived up to its great potential. “Mambo Inn” and Tito Puente’s “Picadillo”
James Carter has long had the ability to play any reed instrument in any style. His trio with organist Gerard Gibbs and
drummer Leonard King, was passionate and intense although somewhat limiting, putting Carter much of the time in a
soul jazz/hard bop bag. The bad sound (with the bass drum often being louder than the saxophonist) was unfortunate
but James Carter took some roaring solos on tenor and sopranino, really digging into John Lewis’ “Rouge.” Still, I’d
rather hear Carter with a piano trio so he can really display his versatility.
Carter returned for the next set, a performance by a thrown-together all-star group headed by Playboy’s emcee, Bill
Cosby, called the Cos Of Good Music. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelto and altoist Vincent Herring joined Carter along with a
rhythm section that included pianist Larry Willis. Cosby’s conducting was a bit ridiculous and the group’s lack of
rehearsal resulted in some messy moments but Willis did well on an Ellington ballad, Pelt played beautifully on Billy
Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” Herring created some heated bop lines that uplifted a dull funk pattern, and Carter’s
ensemble work was often humorous.
The Randy Brecker-Bill Evans Soulbop Band could be one of the great bands due to the brilliance of trumpeter Brecker
and saxophonist Evans. However their set excessively featured the rhythm section, guitarist Hiram Bullock made the
mistake of singing, and the funk overwhelmed the jazz.
Musically, the Phil Woods Quintet, with the leader-altoist, trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Steve
Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, was among the finest groups of the weekend. But they essentially served as
background music for the partiers, often only inspiring applause from perhaps 18 out of the 18,000 people. Despite
being ignored, Woods and particularly Lynch were in excellent form on “All Bird’s Children” and “Bus Stop Serenade,”
with the altoist sounding exquisite on his ballad feature, Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade.”
The jazz festival was nearly finished for the day even though there were still five groups to go. Singer Angelique Kidjo
gained praise from many listeners, but since her music is essentially Afropop dance music with touches of African salsa,
I’m not qualified to comment.
The Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of their longtime bass trombonist Bill Hughes, was in better-than-
usual form. They came out swinging and never stopped, inspiring some dancers with “Down For The Count,” “’Lil
Darling” and “Shiny Stockings.” The orchestra backed singer Melba Joyce on “I’ll Close My Eyes” (the first jazz vocal of
the day) and “All Of Me,” and really burned on “Basie” and an extended “One O’Clock Jump” even if it is long overdue
to retire “April In Paris.” No more “one more once” please. Tenor-saxophonist Doug Lawrence was the most
impressive soloist while drummer Butch Miles was typically exciting.
Cuban singer Issac Delgardo showed potential on one song when his band started out a blues like it was dixieland and
later added rock and roll in a surprising mix. Otherwise his excellent 11-piece band (four brass, one sax, two
keyboards, bass and three percussionists) was mostly confined to accompanying rhythmically interesting but
ultimately repetitious and dull salsa vocals. The audience did enjoy dancing to this group.
The lowpoint to this year’s festival had to be Chris Botti. Botti has a nice tone on the trumpet and excellent technique
but he alternates between treating every note in the melodies of ballads as if they are precious and jamming over
mindless funk rhythms. Although guitarist Mark Whitfield did what he could and Botti’s band was fine, the constant
posing by Botti was very difficult to sit through. He is to the jazz trumpet what Rod Stewart is to jazz singing.
But Saturday ended up on a much higher level with the performance by veteran bluesman Buddy Guy. Guy, who took
consistently explosive guitar solos, was often very funny in his singing and talking to the audience, and it was a
pleasure to watch a true master at work. Whether singing humorous stanzas to “Hootchie Cootchie Man,” screaming
“Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues” or playing a long minor blues while out in the audience, he was entertaining, creative
and quite fun.
Sunday’s program, other than a weak start and a tedious finale, was mostly very rewarding. Malcolm-Jamal Warner,
who played one of the Cosby kids in the Bill Cosby Show, is a fine bassist but thinks he is a spoken word artist. While
his band Miles Long is excellent and includes a powerful saxophonist in Darren Gholston, Warner’s angry
talking/shouting/rapping was jarring and very out-of-place, rapping about the low quality of current rappers as if that
Things greatly improved with pianist Taylor Eigsti’s Quartet. Eigsti and guitarist Julian Lage worked together very
well, assisted by bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. “Love For Sale,” a complex reworking of
“Caravan” and Bjork’s “I’ve Sent It All” (taken as a sensitive ballad) were among the songs that they explored.
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, with Nathan Williams on accordion and vocals and Mark Williams on rubboard,
performed blues, blues ballads and a lengthy one-chord romp that had many dancing to the infectious music. Zydeco is
always quite fun to see live.
Arguably the highpoint of the date was a set by the great tenor and alto-saxophonist Red Holloway. With fine work
from a returning Taylor Eigsti, bassist Richard Reid and drummer Gerryck King, Holloway was roaring from the start,
grabbing on to the audience with a hard-charging version of Blue Mitchell’s “Fungii Mama,” digging into “You’ve
Changed” and romping on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Kevin Mahogany joined up (with pianist Doug Bickel replacing
Eigsti) and was in better-than-usual form. His vocalizing on “Times Are Getting Tougher,” “Yardbird Suite” and
“Route 66” contained some virtuosic scat singing. Holloway’s interaction with the singer was quite exciting. It was a
great hour that was celebrated Red Holloway’s 80th birthday although that event was never announced.
Bassist-singer Richard Bona followed with an intriguing performance that included his quiet African pop singing but
also Afro-Cuban jazz and fine solos including from trumpeter Taylor Haskins and Bona. The wide-ranging repertoire
kept one constantly guessing what was going to happen next.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s quintet with the passionate saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan,
bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott, mostly played themes that were written for the Spike Lee New
Orleans Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke. Melancholy themes alternated with ecstatic solos. When the
performance ended, the ever-alert Bill Cosby announced that we had just listened to Nicholas Payton, and he repeated
that mistake three times.
Marcus Miller’s band displayed a lot of potential, featuring trumpeter Patches Stewart (who has greatly widened his
range during the past few years), altoist Keith Anderson and Gregoire Maret on harmonica. Most of the music was
funk-oriented and there were a few too many electric bass solos from Miller, but his spot on bass clarinet on “When I
Fall In Love” worked well and the band really caught fire during their rendition of the Beatles’ “Together.” Hundreds if
not thousands of partiers spontaneously started to dance and Miller wisely kept the song going as long as possible,
featuring plenty of explosive ensembles from the unusual frontline.
Miller would be a tough act to follow, but Dianne Reeves wisely emphasized funky rhythms during her first couple of
numbers, holding on to most of the audience. Her set, which included “One For The Road” and a swinging “Social Call,”
eventually slipped into autobiographical r&b/folk and got corny with “Just My Imagination” but no one can musically
introduce a band like she can. And when she sings jazz, few can compete with Dianne Reeves.
One of the most enjoyable performances of the weekend was the debut of Arturo Sandoval’s Mambo Mania Big Band.
Emphasizing 1950s mambos including pieces made famous by Perez Prado, Sandoval was very much in his element,
playing completely impossible trumpet solos and outbursts on timbales while leading a raging big band. On one song,
Sandoval took a trumpet break that started on his highest screaming note, gradually working his way down. His
trumpet section, which included Wayne Bergeron on lead, powered the ensembles and two colorful couples performed
some impressive dance numbers onstage. Ed Calle took some heated tenor solos, such songs as “Cherry Pink And
Apple Blossom White,” “Mam Bop,” “How Good Is Mambo” and “Mambo Caliente” were performed, and Arturo’s
occasional vocal breaks were hilarious. It seemed as if the entire audience at the Hollywood Bowl was dancing and this
set could have continued for hours.
Next, Etta James surprised many of her fans by now being about 1/3 the size that she was a few years ago. Instead of
finding it difficult to walk as had been true earlier, she prowled the stage confidently and belted out songs with her
familiar voice. Her self-groping and single entendre songs can be a bit over-the-top, but when she sang “At Last,” it
was difficult not to cheer. Other numbers included “I’d Rather Be A Blind Girl,” “A Lover Is Forever,” “They Don’t
Know What Love Is” and “Feel Like Sugar On The Floor.”
Guitarist Norman Brown’s Summer Storm was scheduled last, and few in the audience felt the slightest bit guilty
leaving during his lightweight show. Brown was particularly hyper and gave it his all, but the smooth pop music was
not worth it. Marion Meadows sounded as weak as ever on soprano and Peabo Bryson, despite displaying strong vocal
chops, mostly sang about corny trivialities.
But overall it was a very enjoyable weekend, one of the best Playboy Jazz Festivals in a decade.