|In many ways the 34th annual Playboy Jazz Festival was similar to the previous 33. A bit shorter than in most previous years (15 1/2 hours of
music as opposed to 17), the festival took place during a June weekend at the Hollywood Bowl before 18,000 partiers a day. Good will and happy
spirits were felt whether in the box seats, the bleachers, or at the top of the Bowl where some attendees brought their own couches, bars and
supplies, moving in for the weekend.
But there was one major change. There was less jazz programmed at this particular festival than in any of the previous 33 years. Not counting
the opening high school bands which only make cameo appearances, nine of the 18 groups, by even the most liberal definition, would never be
considered (or consider themselves) to be performing jazz: The Soul Rebels (New Orleans funk and r&b), Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (soul),
Sheila E. (very well received show biz pop), Boney James (smooth), Ozomatli (rock & funk dance music), KG Omulo (worldbeat vocals), Chico
Trujillo (colorful Chilean dance music), Keb’ Mo’ (a likable mixture of r&b and blues) and Robin Thicke (a singer/songwriter programmed at the
prime spot on Sunday night who did not neglect a single cliché). There are so many talented jazz musicians on the scene today, many of whom can
draw well. The logic of giving away half of a jazz festival that generally sells out no matter who is booked is beyond me.
This review concentrates on the actual jazz that was at the festival. Saturday began with the LAUSD/Beyond The Bell All City Jazz Band under
the direction of Tony White and J.B. Dyas. The 19-piece orchestra sounded spirited on “I Mean You,” “Stolen Moments,” “Duke’s Place” and
“Straight No Chaser.” Standouts included altoist Shai Golan, guitarist Parham Peyda and pianist Nathan Heldman who sang and scatted quite well
on “Duke’s Place.”
Singer-percussionist Louie Cruz Beltran led a fine group with three horns and vibraphonist Onaje Murray (featured on a Cal Tjader tribute)
through some Latin jazz including “Cantaloupe Island” and “Spooky.” Javier Gonzalez’s high note trumpet playing was an asset and Beltran proved
to be quite a showman.
Bill Cosby who has led all-star groups under the name of “The Cos Of Good Music” at Playboy for 15 years (and who announced his
retirement from the festival), put together what was arguably his finest group this year. The 20-year old Japanese saxophonist Erena Terakubo
displayed an explosive style that fit in very well with the brilliant altoist Tia Fuller and the masterful trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. While the rhythm
section (which often included Cosby on drums) was fine, it was the passionate playing of the three horns that made this a highpoint for the
weekend. The tunes were not much but Cosby let the musicians stretch out and the results were memorable.
The Global Gumbo All-Stars, put together by Quincy Jones, featured some fine melodic music from two Cubans (pianist Alfredo Rodriguez
and drummer Francisco Mela) and two Africans (the distinctive guitarist Lionel Loueke and bassist-singer Richard Bona) that was well played but
largely functioned as background music. Also cast in the role of pleasant dinner music (the Playboy Jazz Festival has never been known for its
quiet audience!) was the Christian McBride Big Band. More fully evolved than on their recent CD, the orchestra featured such notables as singer
Melissa Walker, trombonist Steve Davis, altoist Steve Wilson and tenor-saxophonist Ron Blake. Best was the closing rapid blues “In A Hurry.”
Sunday had a bit more jazz. The Calabasas High School Jazz A Band, under the direction of Joshua Barroll, played a blues and songs by
Radiohead and Gordon Goodwin. The Cookers, a septet organized by trumpeter David Weiss, included veteran all-stars (trumpeter Eddie
Henderson, tenor-saxophonist Billy Harper, altoist Craig Handy, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart), all of whom
proved to be still be very much in their prime. Their stirring post bop solos, highlighted by some particularly intense statements from Harper, were
often blazing and were always quite stimulating.
Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project was a bit of a disappointment. The all-female band, which included some superb playing from
trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, altoist Tia Fuller, and both Helen Sung and Patrice Rushen on piano and keyboards, was great. The parade of singers
(which included Carrington, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Carmen Lundy and Dee Dee Bridgewater) was wonderful. But the material was just
so-so, a political rant by Angela Davis was largely ignored, and there was little direction or unity to the set. Imagine if Reeves, Parlato, Lundy and
Bridgewater had had an opportunity to sing together!
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been around since 1961 but the current version is one of the strongest in decades. With trumpeter Mark
Braud, 80-year old clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, trombonist Freddie Lonzo and tenor-saxophonist Clint Maedgen forming the frontline ,and
sousaphonist Ben Jaffe directing the band, the New Orleans trad group performed a strong show with plenty of variety, inspiring the audience to
dance on “Bourbon Street Parade” and “The Saints.” The vocals were fine and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band displayed plenty of spirit and energy.
The Ramsey Lewis Electric Band was a bit of a surprise for, although Tim Gant contributed some background keyboards, much of the music
was more acoustic-oriented. Pianist Lewis’ well-rounded set included “Wade In The Water,” some easy-listening music (such as “Kissing Me
Softly”), a joyful gospel medley, songs from his Sun Goddess album, and “The In Crowd” (which included a long quote from “Royal Garden
Blues”). Henry Johnson contributed some excellent guitar solos that fit right in with the enjoyable music.
The Playboy Jazz Festival ended with some ferocious fusion from Spectrum Road, a quartet comprised of drummer Cindy Blackman Santana,
guitarist Vernon Reid, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist-singer Jack Bruce; quite a group. During their tribute to Tony Williams’ Lifetime,
Spectrum Road built on Williams’ 1970s innovations, adding their own personalities and intensity to the music. Blackman-Santana was unrelenting,
Reid was explosive, Medeski constantly came up with new sounds, and Bruce could not stop smiling.
The future direction of the Playboy Jazz Festival should be very interesting to watch.