|Hugh Heffner, in a press conference held backstage, accurately called the Playboy Jazz Festival “a party.” A pair of 8
1/2 hour concerts held at the Hollywood Bowl over a June weekend, the 32nd version featured 22 groups covering a
wide range of music, some of it far beyond jazz. As usual the partying audience tended to drown out the quieter groups
and greatly favor those offering danceable music but, with a few exceptions, most of the bands did well.
It all began with the El Dorado High School Band under the direction of Richard Watson. Most high school bands sound
like a bunch of teenagers, which of course they are. But the 19-piece El Dorado group was on a much higher level
featuring excellent soloists (particularly pianist Ryan Whyman and altoist Alex Hahn on his feature “Georgia On My
Mind”) and clean ensembles. Among the songs they performed during their impressive set were a Bill Liston modern
uptempo blues and Gordon Goodwin's “Act Your Age.”
The stage turned and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was out there all alone. Destroying all stereotypes about his
quiet instrument, he played the ukulele with the power of an electric guitar and with complete confidence. While his
background is not primarily jazz, Shimabukuro proved to be a superior improviser, performing mostly originals other
than the Beatles “All My Life” during an entertaining set.
Trombone Shorty is all about entertainment. A rambunctious trombonist, trumpeter and singer, Shorty and his group
Orleans Avenue mostly emphasized New Orleans r&b during a crowd pleasing set. He grabbed the crowd's attention
during a funky version of “St. James Infirmary” that had song-and-response with the audience taken from “Minnie
The Moocher.” On the closing “When The Saints,” the place seemed ready to really get jumping. But after too many
vocal choruses, the piece ended. If Shorty had concluded with ten ensemble choruses, the Hollywood Bowl would have
exploded, so this was a major misstep.
Following Trombone Shorty, Kurt Elling could have completely lost the audience. But wisely he mostly stuck to
uptempo material, scatting wildly and daring the crowd to ignore him. With the help of tenor-saxophonist Ernie Watts
and pianist Laurence Hopgood on such numbers as “Into The Night,” “All Or Nothing At All,” “You Are Too Beautiful”
and “And We Will Fly,” Elling won over the audience, climaxing the set with 12 choruses of inventive scatting on
Tenor-saxophonist Javon Jackson played hard bop and soul jazz with a quintet co-starring Les McCann on keyboards
and the fine guitarist David Gilmore. McCann got to sing “Compared To What” for the 10,000th time in his career and
the band romped on “Cold Duck Time.”
Naturally 7 could have been called “Take Six Plus One” except that the remarkable a capella group did not preach.
Their imitation of instruments included not only horns, bass and drums but turntables. They were a big hit with the
crowd, as was Marcus Miller. With trumpeter Christian Scott and saxophonist Alex Han being well featured, Miller
featured his brand of funky jazz, honored Miles Davis with version of “Of Human Nature” and “Tutu,” and performed
an explosive version of the Beatles' “Come Together.” The Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra started slow with guitarist
Graham Dechter's feature on “I Ain't Got Nothing But The Blues” being talked over by the audience, and “What A
Wonderful World” (with Louis Armstrong's recorded voice) showing again why that sappy song should be retired. But
then the band caught fire as Jeff Hamilton's spectacular drum showcase on Louie Bellson's “Skin Deep” and a medium-
tempo blues with tenors Charles Owens and Rickey Woodard showed how exciting this big band can be.
Highpoint of the weekend was Chick Corea's Freedom Band, a quartet consisting of the leader's piano, altoist Kenny
Garrett, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes. Haynes at 84 (he first recorded in 1946!) is still at the
peak of his powers, inspiring Corea to constantly smile. This also proved to be the perfect setting for Garrett. The
group played Corea's “Bud Powell,” “Steps,” “We'll Be Together Again,” a Monkish blues and a few originals. Brilliant
Pete Escovedo's orchestra, filling in for Los Van Van, got the crowd dancing to its many percussion solos (often
featuring Sheila E.), Latin grooves and five fine horn soloists (including Justo Almario) although the jazz content could
have been stronger. Closing the night was Sax For Stax, a co-op smooth group with altoist Gerald Albright, tenor-
saxophonist Kirk Whalum and keyboardist Jeff Lorber. Surprisingly they played very little from the Stax catalog but
did perform a medley/tribute included concise versions of “Moment's Notice” and “Giant Steps.” It was as if Albright
and Whalum were saying, “See, we really can play! We just don't on our own records.”
Sunday had its ups and downs. The L.A. All District High School Band was so-so with pianist Anthony Lucca on
“Perdido” being the best soloist. Jazz Mafia's Brass Bows and Beats' Hip-Hop Symphony was mostly pretty bizarre.
The 40 or so piece orchestra included lots of talented San Francisco Bay area musicians including woodwinds and
strings, but its “symphony” was a schizophrenic mess that alternated between mindless poetry, annoying rap and
some excellent jazz. The poet, rappers and singers should have been kept off stage, for their performances were
embarrassing and took away from the band.
The Cos Of Good Music, Bill Cosby's all-star group, had such greats as trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Mark
Gross, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard and pianist D.D. Jackson. Although Cosby's drumming (Ndugu was also on drums)
gave the ensembles a strange sound, the star sidemen all had good opportunities to play with “La Fiesta” being a
While steel guitarist Robert Randolph and his Family Band are outside of jazz, being a rock/r&b/Gospel group, they
played very well with Randolph proving to be the Jimi Hendrix of steel guitar. Esperanza Spalding is rightfully
considered a sensation as a bassist-singer. But at Playboy she probably emphasized her singing a bit too much (she
does have a beautiful voice) and there were few bass solos. Her set was partly sabotaged by the lousy sound quality;
“Jazz Is Nothing But Soul” was difficult to hear. But indisputably, she has the best hair in jazz!
Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra could have been one of the day's hits. They had their great moments
including “Somebody Forgot To Turn The Faucet Off” (a “tribute” to British Petroleum), an original modern rag, and
“May Your Soul Rest In Peace.” Among the key soloists were tenor-saxophonist Ed Peterson, trombonist Ron Westray
and trumpeter Mayfield although many of the other players also had spots. But on a New Orleans-flavored medium-
tempo blues when the audience was clearly dying to dance, the song was cut off prematurely and the moment passed
as Mayfield chose to introduce his band for five minutes. Next was a quartet co-led by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson
and pianist Cedar Walton that unfortunately bombed. Between the feedback, the inaudible solos, and the musicians not
talking to the audience, it did not stand a chance at Playboy.
In contrast, Salif Keita from Mali put on a colorful and rhythmic show that gave the crowd an opportunity to dance. As
with Robert Randolph, Keita's music was not jazz but Keita and his ensemble (which included four percussionists, two
other singers and a talented cora player) are great at what they do and the audience forced him to play an encore.
Manhattan Transfer has been together over 40 years but they have not run out of energy, enthusiasm or fresh ideas.
At Playboy they performed a few numbers from their recent Chick Corea Songbook CD (including a funky version of
“Spain” and “Times Lie”), romped on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “Air Mail Special,” created a classic rendition of
“Tutu,” and concluded with “Birdland.” They are still the best.
When George Benson started his set, it seemed as if it he were reluctant to even pick up his guitar much less play it,
sticking to singing r&b pieces. No matter, the audience loved every minute as they danced away. But things picked up
after Benson sang “Moody's Mood For Love.” He welcomed Earl Klugh onstage for an instrumental and then drove the
place crazy with “This Masquerade,” “Give Me The Night” and “On Broadway.” Finally, the Latin music and salsa of
Tempo Libre was a pleasing way to conclude this year's Playboy Jazz Festival.