|The 30th annual Playboy Jazz Festival was better than usual, with a strong jazz-oriented lineup along with bits of
World Music, blues and r&b. As usual the June weekend at the Hollywood Bowl was a big party with jazz, rather than a
jazz party, with the music serving as mere background ambiance for many of the partiers. But despite the crowd noise,
there were many strong musical moments.
The marathon, a pair of 8 1/2 hour concerts, began with the Hamilton High School Academy Of Music Jazz Ensemble
“A” which was directed by Dan Taguchi. The 19-piece high school band fared quite well particularly on the opening
“Claxtography” which had fine solos from Thaddeus Brown on tenor and trumpeter Marcus Paul. Pity that the
orchestra, which featured their excellent saxophone section on “Blues And The Abscessed Tooth,” was only given 20
Pianist Robert Glasper did fine playing with his trio, but his comments to the audience were actually more memorable
than his playing (although the witty “Silly Rabbit” was a highlight). At the end of his opening number which was met by
decent applause, he said, “All of you weren’t listening, so don’t clap now. If you were listening, then you can clap.”
Knowing that many of the 18,000 in the audience did not know who he was, he said humorously, “Thanks all of you for
coming out to see me. I wasn’t expecting all this.”
Each year the emcee Bill Cosby leads a “Cos Of Good Music” all-star group, which gives him an excuse to play
percussion and display a silly conducting style. This year he let the group play and the results were rewarding. After
organist Jerry Peters and guitarist David T. Walker had a feature, a quintet featuring tenor-saxophonist Billy Harper,
the up-and-coming trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Benny Green performed John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,”
the swing standard “Marie” and “Moanin’” with spirit; Harper in particular sounded great.
The main star of Saturday was pianist Hiromi, a really outstanding player who has great showmanship and apparently
limitless energy. While some of her set was funky or fusionish, featuring guitarist David Fiuczynki, the repertoire was
wide-ranging, from an inventive reworking of “Caravan,” to Debussy’s “Clare De Lune.” On an unaccompanied “I Got
Rhythm,” Hiromi took six remarkable choruses in which she sounded like George Gershwin at triple the speed. At
other times, she used her elbow on the piano to punctuate chords, played both piano and Fender Rhodes
simultaneously, and showed that she is as adept with her left hand as with her right.
Veteran tenor-saxophonist James Moody proved that at 83, he remains quite ageless. He led a quintet featuring
trumpeter Terence Blanchard and pianist Renee Rosnes (who could not help sounding sober and polite after Hiromi)
on such numbers as “Last Train From Overbrook,” “Bebop,” “St. Thomas” and of course “Moody’s Mood For Love.”
Guest singer Roberta Gambarini did her vocalese version of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” but she would have
fared better with the audience (which was under the barrage of 30 beach balls) if she had sung a lowdown blues
The all-female big band Diva, which was driven by its leader drummer Sherri Maricle, performed a well-rounded set
that included Janelle Richman swinging on clarinet a la Benny Goodman on “Rachel’s Dream,” a tribute to Slam
Stewart on “Slambo” (with some outstanding bass playing by Jennifer Leitham), a high-powered version of Leonard
Bernstein’s “America” with Maricle in the forefront, and “Three Sisters And A Cousin” (which was inspired by “Four
Brothers”). Looking at Hugh Hefner in the audience, Sherri Maricle said, “If you ever decide to do an all-woman big
band issue for Playboy, we’d like to be the centerfold!”
After six straight rewarding sets, it was time for the music to become much more erratic. R n R teamed together
trumpeter Rick Braun and tenor-saxophonist Richard Elliot. While they played well on their first number (giving it
everything they had) and were okay on “Down And Dirty,” the music soon became much more predictable; smooth
without soul, funky without any creativity. The audience was hungry to dance and stole the show, relegating the band
to background music for their dance party.
Dr. John kept the spirit going, playing one funk number after another during a set that climaxed with “Right Place But
The Wrong Time” although he also scored some points with the plea “My People Need A Second Line.” If Dr. John had
cut his horns loose and extended his final number, he would have really gotten the crowd.
Poncho Sanchez had no trouble keeping the audience’s attention with his brand of accessible Latin jazz. Trumpeter Ron
Blake often took solo honors. Two numbers were change of paces that featured the veteran soul singer Eddie Boyd:
“Knock On Wood” and “Raise Your Hand.”
Easily the strangest set of the weekend was performed by Al Jarreau. Although Jarreau’s voice sounded as strong as
ever, his verbal monologues between songs were so aimless, meandering and overly dramatic that they sounded like
outtakes from a bad Broadway show. He even ranted that Dave Brubeck should give him royalties because he
recorded “Take Five,” not apparently realizing that Paul Desmond wrote the song, that it has been a giant hit since
1960, and that the royalties go to the Red Cross. Jarreau’s version of “My Funny Valentine” was corny, his use of a
mediocre female singer on many of the numbers was distracting, and his scatting was eccentric to say the least. Al
Jarreau needs to rethink his career. His set bombed, leading one to speculate, “If only his great talents could be used
for the good of mankind.”
Closing the night was Tower Of Power. While having no real connection to jazz, Tower Of Power put on a great show.
Their five-piece horn section was very tight, musical and soulful, singer Larry Braggs was charismatic, and the
program moved fast, including “We Came To Play,” “Get Your Feet Back On The Ground,” “I Still Be Digging On
James Brown,” and of course “What Is Hip?”
Sunday began with the View Park Prep Jazz Ensemble. Directed by Fernando Pullum, the 19-piece outfit was most
notable for having a seven-piece saxophone section and for performing music that was reminiscent of Oliver Nelson in
Drummer Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet is a fine pianoless group that features trumpeter Don Sickler (who was
probably responsible for most of the arrangements and transcriptions), altoist Bruce Williams, Wayne Escoffery on
tenor and baritonist Jay Branford. They sounded excellent on such Monk songs as “Brake’s Sake,” “Bemsha Swing”
“Bright Mississippi” and a lengthy chart on “Rhythm-A-Ning” although no real surprises occurred.
Soul singer Ryan Shaw has a strong voice and really dug into such numbers as “Try A Little Tenderness” (which was
not too tender), “Let It Be” and “We’ve Got Love.” He sounded at his best on the quiet “I’ve Got Many Rivers To
Cross” although he was very much out of place at a jazz festival.
Brazilian composer, vocalist and keyboardist Ivan Lins put on a jazz-oriented program that included “Velas Sails,”
strong saxophone playing (particularly on soprano) by Marcelo Martins, and memorable guest appearances by
guitarist-singer Oscar Castro-Neves on “The Waters Of March” and “Dindi.”
My favorite set of Sunday was by the Roy Hargrove Big Band. Although Hargrove did not say a word to the audience
(other than a perfunctory introduction of guest Roberta Gambarini), he sang quite effectively on “September In The
Rain,” displayed a range on trumpet that has widened in recent years (he now hits impressive high notes), and looked
quite happy with his orchestra’s performance. He provided most of the arrangements which included boppish pieces,
some that were more reminiscent of John Coltrane’s “Africa” project, and a few dramatic numbers. Gambarini was fine
on two numbers (including “Something Happens”) but she deserves to be more extensively showcased. The trumpet
section (Ambrose Akinmusire, Greg Gisbert, Frank Greene and Darren Barrett) was featured during the exciting
Dee Dee Bridgewater’s most recent Red Earth project is a tribute to Mali and Africa in general. Joined by a strong
rhythm section that included the great pianist Edsel Gomez, Mamdou Cherif Swoumano on kora, and several other
singers, Dee Dee combined together African music with her scat singing, often dancing happily. The colorful set
included “Afro Blue,” “The Breeze,” “Compared To What” and some recent originals.
Unfortunately I missed the performance by Plena Libre, a Puerto Rican group that mixes together plena rhythms with
dance grooves and is dominated by vocalists, trombonists and percussion.
Keb’ Mo’, a longtime Playboy Festival favorite, inspired a lot of dancing with his mixture of blues ballads, catchy r&b
grooves and an occasional blues. “Give Me What You Got” particularly excited the audience.
One of the most interesting sets of the weekend was put on by Herbie Hancock, who switched between piano and
electric keyboards while being joined by a great deal of talent. His quintet included tenor-saxophonist Chris Potter,
guitarist Lionel Loueke (who can apparently play in any style), Dave Holland (sticking to electric bass) and drummer
Vinnie Colaiuta. After they played “Actual Proof,” they were joined by singers Amy Keys and Sonya Kitchell for songs
from Hancock’s award-winning River CD. Keys impressed everyone even if most of the music was outside of jazz. The
musicians performed “Watermelon Man” in 17/4 time and really excited the crowd with a lengthy “Chameleon.”
Wayne Shorter was a surprise guest, adding his soprano to two numbers although he was underutilized. As a climax,
electric bassist Marcus Miller, C-Minus on turntables and 41 young dancers from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy
joined in for a spectacular and rather wild version of “Rock It.”
Although they tried their best, Guitar & Saxes was anti-climatic as the 20th and closing group of the Playboy Jazz
Festival. Keyboardist Jeff Lorber played well, altoist Gerald Albright showed once again that he should be playing
more adventurous music since he is quite talented, and guitarist Peter White was in fine form. On the minus side,
saxophonist Jessy J. made one wonder if she knew how to do anything but stick to the melody (her posing got
annoying) and guitarist Jeff Golub seemed to think he was at a rock show. But Guitar & Saxes served its purpose,
clearing the place so the traffic jam leaving the Bowl was not quite as bad as it usually is.
All in all, 2008 was one of the best Playboy Jazz Festivals in recent memory.