|As usual, the Playboy Jazz Festival was held at the Hollywood Bowl during a June weekend as a pair of 8 1/2 hour concerts. Veterans
of the festival (I have been to all 31) know what to expect. There is always a party atmosphere in which few in the audience pay much
attention to what is happening onstage unless the music gets danceable. Food, alcohol, people watching and chit-chatting take
precedent over the music, so musicians have to work hard to get the audience’s attention. The eclectic program ranges far beyond
jazz at times and there are some groups that are of little interest to jazz fans. But if one goes to the festival with tolerance and a strong
sense of humor, it is a great party and there is always some memorable music to experience.
Two days before the Saturday concert, Mark Cantor at the L.A. County Museum Of Art, had his annual showing of gems from his jazz
film collection. This year’s highlights included Stephane Grappelli jamming “Lady Be Good” in the 1960s, Freddie Hubbard playing
an abstract version of “Misty,” four rather incredible dance numbers in a row, and trumpeter Hot Lips Page trading fours with puppet
Jerry Mahoney (who looked like he was actually playing drums). Mark Cantor does not have many opportunities to present his
treasures in public these days. It should be sponsored as a monthly event!
This year it came dangerously close to raining during the festival (there were showers just three hours before Saturday’s events) and
those who came prepared with umbrellas were forced to check them in with security. What would happen if it actually did pour
during the festival? Fortunately the rain stopped in time.
21 groups performed at Playboy this year. The Los Angeles County High School For The Arts, under the direction of Jason Goldman,
started out strong during their first of three numbers. Tenor-saxophonist Matt Zooi and guitarist Justin Kopcyznski both sounded
excellent and showed potential for the future.
The New Birth Brass Band would have caused a sensation if they had been scheduled for 6 p.m. rather than at 3. Trombonist Revert
Andrews tried very hard to wake up the audience and partly succeeded. The group, which also featured trumpeter William Smith,
saxophonist Byron Bernant, tuba, bass drum and snare drum, would have benefitted from having a clarinetist. They started out with
the “Saints” and their set included “Down In Gloryland” and an odd mixture of “St. James Infirmary” and “Minnie The Moocher.”
Five women who were in the audience (four had umbrellas and one waved a white handkerchief) were invited onstage to dance and
for a stretch the New Birth (which is definitely a parade band) played out in the audience. They did their very best and the 200
people that noticed enjoyed the show.
This year’s version of the Cos Of Good Music was one of the strongest bands that Bill Cosby (who is the festival’s regular emcee) has
organized yet. Trumpeter Tanya Darby (who I once saw playing in a high school band at the Monterey Jazz Festival) and Anat Cohen
on clarinet and tenor challenged each other, often screaming in the upper register together. Pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Dwayne
Burno, drummer Ndugu Chancler and percussionist Luis Conte worked well together even if Cosby’s percussion playing was a
distraction. The highlight was a high-powered version of “Compared to What.”
Two different quartets followed. Trumpeter Jon Faddis hits high notes with such ease that it almost sounds as if he is simply pushing
a button. Joined by a trio with pianist David Hazeltine, Faddis probably overdid the high notes but he played beautifully on “Body
And Soul”and delighted composer Lalo Schifrin (who was in the audience) with his version of “Toccato” from Schifrin’s “Gillespiana.”
Bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding has gained a great deal of deserved attention during the past year. She is a powerful bassist but the
emphasis during her set was on her vocals including “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul” (recorded by Betty Carter in the late 1950s) and
“She Got To You.” She should have also performed some instrumentals but it might not have helped given the abysmal sound. Why
does the Playboy Jazz Festival after 31 years still have generally lousy sound quality?
The festival took a brief vacation away from jazz during a set by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, a first-rate soul music act that was
completely out of place. Trumpeter-singer Jack Sheldon, who has been ailing recently, was in pretty good shape during his
performance with his always-roaring big band. Since there was silence between songs, Sheldon must have been told by the people at
Playboy not to make any jokes. Despite that, the band played the Tom Kubis arrangements quite well and Sheldon’s trumpet (heard
mostly in the middle register) and singing was fine. Trombonist Andy Martin was the star among the supporting cast, taking several
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kind Of Blue, the record’s one surviving musician, drummer Jimmy Cobb, led the “So What
Band.” Wallace Roney was the logical choice to be in the role of Miles Davis and these days at the right angle he even looks like Miles.
It was interesting hearing Roney play in an earlier style of Davis than usual. Altoist Vincent Herring used to sound a lot more like
Cannonball Adderley than he does now while tenor-saxophonist Javon Jackson, who normally sounds nothing like John Coltrane,
quoted from him in spots. Pianist Larry Willis and bassist Buster Williams fit into the group well. Although the musicians performed
the songs from Kind Of Blue, thankfully they did not recreate the solos, creating fresh statements on “So What,” “Freddie
Freeloader” and the other tunes.
The last three groups on Saturday only offered a bit of jazz as a spice to their performances. The Pete Escovedo Orchestra was
dominated by the percussion solos and vocals of his offspring, Sheila E., Peter Michael and Juan. The Bowl became a dance party and
surprisingly Escovedo hardly featured any of his five horn players (which included tenor-saxophonist Justo Almario), instead
performing Latin dance music. Guitarist Norman Brown’s Summer Storm 2009 was only of interest for smooth fans who enjoy
hearing predictable music. Saxophonist Eric Darius played every cliche he could think of at top volume, dancing all over the stage
while rarely getting away from the forgettable melodies. Keyboardist Gail Jhonsson did her best to sound like 1970s Ramsey Lewis
and singer Phil Perry wasted his formidable vocal chops on dull material.
Saturday closed with the Neville Brothers, who happily played a more jazz-oriented set than usual. Charles Neville was well featured
on tenor and alto while the band performed such tunes as “Fever,” “Besame Mucho” and “When You Go To New Orleans” in addition
to a few of their hits.
Sunday’s lineup promised a great deal and it partly delivered. After an average set by the North Hollywood High School Jazz
Ensemble (“Afro Blue” was best), Anat Cohen was in outstanding form. Joined by pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Joe Martin and
drummer Daniel Freedman, Ms. Cohen started with a colorful and witty reworking of “Jitterbug Waltz” on clarinet. On other songs
she switched between clarinet and tenor, sometimes hinting at Illinois Jacquet a little on the latter, performing mostly a set of post
bop originals. On clarinet, she is already in the top five in the jazz world and her tenor playing is equally as impressive. She is
definitely worth seeing.
Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez escaped from Cuba last year and his appearance at Playboy was one of his first major concerts. Joined by
bassist Nathan East and drummer Francisco Mela, Rodriguez displayed brilliant technique, creative ideas, and a consistent high
energy. His playing was so powerful that at times the results sounded like improvised classical music. He will learn to use space more
in the future but at this point has limitless potential.
Due to Danilo Perez having unexpected surgery, Wayne Shorter’s quartet featured Geoffrey Keezer on piano. Keezer, despite the
lack of rehearsals, sounded quite at home performing Shorter’s difficult and constantly dissonant music alongside bassist John
Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. The audience was largely bored by the nonstop music which had a lot of group improv. The
musicians played very well but the material was forgettable.
Pianist Monty Alexander did fine with his Jazz & Roots group, performing straightahead jazz, reggae and calypsos. Some of the best
music of the weekend was provided by bassist Dave Holland’s Big Band including such songs as “The Razor’s Edge,” “How’s Never”
and “Purple Dance.” But considering that the soloists included trombonist Robin Eubanks, tenor-saxophonist Chris Potter, altoist
Antonio Hart, baritonist Gary Smulyan, and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, it is not surprising that great music resulted.
It was 6:30 and the jazz festival was essentially over but there were still four groups to go. Patti Austin, who in recent years has shown
that she can sing and swing Ella Fitzgerald songs with the very best, unfortunately chose to stick to r&b, disco and soul ballads during
her set. Someone should have reminded her that she was at a jazz festival. Although a lot of applause occurred during her
performance, most of it was for the Lakers winning the NBA Championship.
King Sunny Ade’s African Beats was all percussion, vocals and choreographed dancing. Early on they had the audience going crazy,
forming very long conga lines in the bleachers but, instead of building on their momentum, they stuck to their set list, played some
ballads, and lost the crowd.
And then came Kenny G, who represents the end of music. He started his set playing in the audience and soon, via circular breathing,
was holding an endless long note in an attempt to get applause. Throughout his performance, which included some very light Latin
jazz, he proved that he is to jazz what Lawrence Welk was to swing. Every possible cliché was trotted out, whether it was his bassist
putting on a display on “What’s Going On” worthy of an amateur hour (he would probably have come in third), his percussionist
playing around with a tambourine in an act that might have worked on the Ed Sullivan Show, or G. shamelessly using Louis
Armstrong’s voice and image on “What A Wonderful World.” All of it was extremely corny and, to the credit of the audience, it
generated very light applause. Why was Kenny G (who had played more jazz-oriented sets during his three performances at Playboy
in the early 1990s) booked at this festival?
Closing the marathon weekend was pianist Oscar Hernandez and the L.A. Salsa All Stars. While the musicianship was excellent
(particularly the leader and a high-note trumpeter), there was one hot instrumental, and the female singer did a good job on
“Frenesi,” it was a shame that this was not a salsa performance rather than a Latin jazz set. But it was pleasing, particularly compared
to what it followed, and it gave one an opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of this year’s festival which is, as always, still the
best annual party in town.