The 2013 Playboy Jazz Festival
The 35th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, while a bit briefer (reduced from 17 to 15 1/2 total hours for the two days) than it used to be, featured 20
different groups at the Hollywood Bowl. As usual, the party atmosphere was infectious, the audience was consistently noisy (a tradition at
Playboy) and for many in the crowd, the music was generally relegated to the background except when it was danceable. The performances
overall were more jazz-oriented than in 2012 (when Playboy became largely a World Music festival), particularly on Saturday. Still, with 8 of the
20 groups (Pedrito Martinez, Robert Glasper, Angelique Kidjo, George Duke, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Taj Mahal, India.Aire and Sheila E.)
having nothing much to do with jazz, one hopes that next time around, the jazz content will be higher.
          This year, George Lopez succeeded Bill Cosby as the festival’s emcee. While at first, he seemed to be emulating Bill Cosby’s unprepared
and sparse approach (although without Cosby’s yelling over the playing of the acoustic jazz groups), Lopez improved as the weekend advanced,
displaying his own humorous style and evolving into a genial host.
          The weekend began with the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble. The 18-piece group, under the direction of
Jason Goldman, was pretty impressive, with rousing ensembles and excellent solos, particularly by trombonist Sarah Sandoval, vibraphonist Dante
Luna and the two fine tenor-saxophonists.
          The Pedrito Martinez Group, with the leader on percussion and lead vocals, performed spirited World Music. The star of their performance
was keyboardist-singer Ariache Trujillo who is potentially a major talent.
          One of the highpoints of the festival was the set that 21-year old altoist Grace Kelly shared with 81-year altoist Phil Woods. Bebop at the
Playboy Jazz Festival! The group, which also featured the up-and-coming trumpeter Jason Palmer, and some really fine solos from pianist Josh
Nelson along with solid support from bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Bill Goodwin, put the focus on the two saxophonists. Kelly, who is
already one of the best in her field, was okay with her two vocals but at her best when she was jamming with Woods on “How High The Moon”
and a classic version of “Webb City.” Her occasional staccato phrasing and intense tone are distinctive, and her fearlessness in trading off with
Woods is admirable. As for Phil Woods (one of the all-time greats), he displays so much knowledge in each phrase and he is still at the peak of his
playing powers.
          Gregory Porter, who after just two CDs already ranks as one of the top five male jazz singers around today, was the hit of last year’s
Monterey Jazz Festival. He did well at Playboy, singing such numbers as “On The Way To Harlem,” “No Love Dying,” the unaccompanied “Oh
Lord” (which got the audience going), a powerful version of “Work Song,” “Be Good,” “Liquid Spirit” and “1960 What?” His band is joyfully
unruly and potentially dangerous at times (a la Charles Mingus) with altoist Yosuke Sato taking intense solos that often go outside.  Porter, with his
passionate singing and obvious talents, gradually won over the crowd.
          Jazz then took a vacation for a couple of sets. Robert Glasper, who can be a great pianist, mostly performed funk with his “Experiment”
that had annoying “vocals” by saxophonist Casey Benjamin through his vocoder. The facial expressions, electronics, and bizarre singing was
almost unintentionally satirical. For no particular reason, Dianne Reeves sat in for an unrehearsed version of “Afro Blue” that was forgotten as soon
as she left the stage.
          Angelique Kidjo with guest flugelhornist Hugh Masekela, was the hit of the day with the crowd. However her enthusiastic and danceable
brand of World Music had nothing to do with jazz. A large portion of her set seemed as if it was merely killing time, particularly when she had
dancing members of the audience interacting endlessly with her percussionist.
          Gordon Goodwin with his Big Phat Band knew that it was going to be a challenge to capture the audience after following Kidjo, but he was
well prepared. His band was roaring from the start, he gave a colorful verbal introduction to the all-star group, and altoist Eric Marienthal wailed
over a funky number that had the perfect title of “Hit The Ground Running.” Most of their music was so high-powered that the crowd did not have
an opportunity to ignore the orchestra. While an r&b feature for young singer Judith Hill was forgettable, the uptempo “Race To The Bridge” was a
blazing runthrough on rhythm changes, and guitarist Lee Ritenour successfully guested on “Stone Flower” and his tribute to Les Paul “L.P.” The
highpoint of the set and arguably the weekend was Goodwin’s very inventive transformation of “Rhapsody In Blue.” The writing was inspired and
there was not a dull second in this classic rendition.
          The a capella group Naturally 7 has now appeared at three of the past four Playboy Jazz Festivals. Perhaps it is time to give them a rest.
While the singers successfully imitate everything from drum machines, a full drum set, a funky bass, a turntable, and horns, they need stronger
material to uplift their music from being a novelty act. Herbie Hancock guested on “Butterfly” but made no impression..
          There was a lot of potential in the teaming of Poncho Sanchez’s band with the great tenor-saxophonist James Carter for a set titled “Ole
Coltrane.” Despite the fact that every note that Carter played was full of intense passion, this set was a disappointment. Sanchez mostly played his
usual brand of Latin jazz, Carter was just a guest on three numbers (what does “Watermelon Man” have to do with Coltrane?), and the Latin jazz
band never bothered reacting to anything that Carter played. No serious planning went into this music, and it showed.
          Closing Saturday was keyboardist George Duke and singer Jeffrey Osborne in an hour of r&b dance music. Duke never bothered
acknowledging his jazz roots or that he was at a jazz festival.
          Sunday had its moments.  The LAUSD Beyond The Bell Jazz Band under the direction of Tony White and J.B. Dyas performed “Perdido,”
“Too Close For Comfort,” “Tenor Madness” and part of “Sing Sing Sing” before the stage turned at the 20-minute mark.
Pianist ELEW (formerly known as Eric Lewis) has reinvented himself during the past few years, dropping hard bop to emerge as a rock and roll
pianist. While his playing ranged from gentle ragtime-oriented solos to very thunderous, with a liberal use of the pedals, ELEW (who does not use a
piano bench while playing) mostly performed pop and rock tunes including “People Are Strange,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Human Nature.”
ELEW accompanied the nine skilled dancers of the Jazzantiqua Dance Ensemble on several numbers during this colorful set.
The Brubeck Brothers Quartet (Chris Brubeck on bass and bass trombone, drummer Dan Brubeck, guitarist Mike Demicco and pianist Chuck
Lamb) performed a set of mostly melodic jazz, part of it being a tribute to Chris and Dan’s father Dave Brubeck. While one always enjoys “Blue
Rondo A La Turk” and “Take Five,” it was impossible not only to miss Dave Brubeck but a saxophone. In this setting with the partying crowd, the
Brubeck Brothers Quartet mostly served as pleasant dinner music.
South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a well-respected nine voice a capella group. That said, their performance at Playboy was a complete
bomb. None of the singers bothered explaining much to the crowd about what they were singing. When they went into their choreographed
dancing their singing was inaudible which made it rather jarring when they returned. Their repetitive vocalizing was roundly ignored.
Blues innovator Taj Mahal’s set promised much but, due to the terrible sound quality, was a fizzle. The sound crew seemed incapable of balancing
the four horns (which at times included four tubas) with the five-piece rhythm section and Mahal’s voice. Taj Mahal was in cheerful form
throughout and Howard Johnson sounded equally skilled on tuba, flugelhorn and baritone saxophone but better arrangements were needed to fully
showcase the unique horn players (which included Earl McIntyre, Bob Stewart and Bob Daley).
          The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, like Goodwin the day before, launched into a heated number while the stage was still turning.
Starting with a high note trumpet, the first piece had Rickey Woodard and Jeff Clayton trading passionate choruses, followed by solos from pianist
Tamir Hendelman, trombonist George Bohanon and trumpeter Clay Jenkins. The rest of the band’s set was a tribute to Quincy Jones’ 80th
birthday, taken from the era when Jones (who was in the audience) wrote jazz arrangements (the 1950s and ‘60s). While expected guest Patti
Austin was absent due to illness (why wasn’t Dianne Reeves signed up?), flutist Hubert Laws did a fine job of sitting in with the band. “Birth Of A
Band,” “Nasty Madness,” “Moanin’” and “Killer Joe” were among the pieces that had spirited revivals.
          The last four groups of the festival displayed varying degrees of jazz and creativity. Pianist Bob James and altoist David Sanborn (in a
quartet with bassist James Genus and drummer Steve Gadd) mostly played lightweight material punctuated with occasional straight ahead sections
and fine blowing by Sanborn. R&B singer India.Arie was a big hit, showing a lot of talent during her set. The audience, who sang along with her
songs, did not care that she has no relationship to jazz. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue showed that subtlety, taste and melodic development
can be very overrated. Utilizing funk rhythms and raucous repetition, Trombone Shorty had the audience excited from the very first note, causing a
sensation. The music was fun if often quite silly as Shorty drove the audience to a frenzy. Most colorful was when six of the musicians formed a
circle and all joined in on playing drums.
          Finishing the festival was Sheila E. Starting with a couple of numbers that featured her interacting with 14 young parade drummers who
performed on 4 bass drums, 6 snare and 2 cymbals, Sheila E. displayed high energy throughout her hour. Emphasizing Latin funk and pop, she
alternated between drums, congas and timbales. She welcomed her “surprise” guest Pete Escovedo to a couple of numbers, sang some of her hits,
and had India.Arie sit in on congas during the last song. The very last note of the festival was a screaming sound from the ensemble, a perfect end
to the weekend.
          It may not have always been musical and often was not jazz but, despite it all, the Playboy Jazz Festival was once again a lot of fun.