The 2014 Playboy Jazz Festival
The 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival was similar in ways to the first 35. The party atmosphere, unlike any I have ever seen at any another
jazz festival, was very much present with many in the audience barely paying attention to what was occurring on stage but certainly having a
great time. The two marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl totaling 15 ½ hours (up until three years ago it was 17) featured 20 groups, of
which 12 mostly performed jazz. And the sound quality was terrible as always.
One would think that this year, with the L.A. Philharmonic organization taking over the festival from Playboy, the sound would be up to the
level of the summer concerts at the Bowl, but it was even worse than usual. Whenever the bandstand turned and a new group started playing, it
took at least two songs before the sound crew seemed to notice. When Dr. Lonnie Smith (one of the world’s top jazz organists) played, the sound
people must have thought that the organ is an acoustic instrument since he was inaudible for much of his set.  The Butler-Bernstein Hot 9
featured four horns and a violinist but in their ensembles one could hear at the most two horns. Arturo Sandoval could not find a functioning
microphone in order to talk to the audience. And the electric bass was so over miked during Los Amigos Invisibles’ performance, which closed the
weekend, that the sound of the bass raced through one’s heart and was physically painful. The result was the earliest and quickest exodus of
people that I’ve seen at the Playboy Jazz Festival in a decade. Hopefully for next year’s festival, the folks at the L.A. Philharmonic will hire a
competent group of sound people so fans can actually hear what is taking place onstage! The festival and its loyal fans certainly deserve that.
And hopefully next year the lineup will be much more jazz-oriented since the Playboy Jazz Festival draws a big crowd no matter who is booked.
Saturday was mostly a pretty strong show.  The LAUSD Beyond the Bell Jazz Band which is directed by Tony White and JB Dyas did a good job on
four songs including “Blue Bossa” and “I Mean You” Of the many soloists, altoist Devin Daniels and the saxophonists in general were the stars.
The New Jump Blues began by showing much promise with three horns riffing on an uptempo blues. However too little was heard from the
septet as the singers Antonio Fargas, Adrian Battle and Airreal Watkins, who were all fine, dominated the jump, blues and swing music. This
group needs to have many more hot solos if they want to catch on.
Speaking of hot, altoist Tia Fuller may look like an r&b star but her alto solos are fiery, passionate and explorative in the spirit of late-period John
Coltrane. Performing with an excellent quartet and doubling on soprano, Ms. Fuller was brilliant throughout her set (other than a
comparatively lightweight vocal version on “Body And Soul”), showing that she is one of today’s jazz greats.
Rock singer-guitarist Allan Stone was completely out-of-place and quite forgettable. The great pianist Kenny Barron led a quartet with Ravi
Coltrane on tenor and soprano, bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa and drummer Johnathan Blake. Whether playing his uptempo boppish blues “We Meet
Again,” the attractive “Phantom,” Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” or the very catchy trio feature “Calypso,” Barron and his group had a
memorable outing.
One of the other highpoints, despite the sound problems, was the Butler-Bernstein Hot 9. Co-led by pianist Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein
(who played trumpet, slide trumpet and alto horn), the group also featured trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, violinist Charlie Burnham, three reed
players, guitar, bass and drums. Much of their music was taken from either 1920s jazz or New Orleans yet some of the soloing (particularly that
of Butler) and the jammed ensembles were more modern. Because the musicians were very familiar with the early styles, they were able to
stretch them in compatible and colorful ways. The repertoire included Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” (which was turned into a suite that went
from free to a funeral march and eventually hot stride and boogie-woogie piano), Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and “I Thought I Heard
Buddy Bolden Say” (which had a Butler vocal). I would love to see this group in a club.
Dianne Reeves led a great band that included Tia Fuller, trumpeter Sean Jones, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and both Peter Martin and Geoffrey
Keezer on keyboards, but the material was mostly so poor (forgettable funk) that the set was largely a waste.  The only bright stop was a
charming Brazilian piece that was a tribute to Celia Cruz. Listening to Reeves scat on throwaway tunes is like hearing Ella Fitzgerald singing a
Beatles song; it simply does not work.
In contrast, Jamie Cullum seems to have the ability to sing just about anything and have it succeed. His high energy set found him playing
timbales at times, playing some very good piano, running around, and at one point singing while standing on the piano before jumping off in
time to the music. Show biz elements aside, he was in top form on “It’s the Same Thing,” a fast “Just One Of Those Things,” “These Are The
Days,” a way-too-brief “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a menacing version of “Love For Sale” and his “When I Get Famous.” Jamie Cullum
should visit L.A. more often and have his own show at the Hollywood Bowl.
Arturo Sandoval, one of the world’s great trumpeters, led his big band at Playboy. With actor Andy Garcia guesting on bongos, Sandoval played
some Cuban dance music, his “Mambo Caliente,” a trumpet tradeoff with Wayne Bergeron (“Maynard and Waynard”), accompanied singer
Monica Mancini on two numbers (including “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”) and interacted with Patti Austin who was in great form on “I’ll Build A
Stairway To Paradise” and “Lady Be Good.”
At last year’s Playboy Jazz Festival, the late keyboardist George Duke, in one of his last appearances, headed an r&b set. Closing Saturday was a
tribute to Duke that featured Al Jarreau (who like Duke gave up jazz for r&b 40 years ago), bassist Stanley Clarke and Dianne Reeves. Duke’s
roots in jazz (such as his associations with Cannonball Adderley, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Zappa) were never acknowledged verbally or
Sunday was a bit of a challenge for jazz fans because most of the performances had no connection with jazz. Appearing along the way were Juan
De Marcos & The Afro-Cuban All-Stars (a salsa group only of interest for its high-note trumpeter), singer Jose James (whose early flirtation with
jazz is in the past), the pop/rock singer Fantasia, and the pop band Los Amigos Invisibles. I had been looking forward to seeing the James Cotton
Blues Band with guest saxophonist Big Jay McNeely but apparently I was ten years too late. Cotton sat down the whole time, playing the same
licks on harmonica over and over and never saying a word to the audience. His backup band and singer Darrell Nulisch were fine but McNeely,
the most extreme honking saxophonist of the late 1940s, just sang a few routine numbers and barely played his horn at all.
Of the jazz groups, the Esperanza High School Jazz Band was excellent, sounding like Count Basie on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Don’t Get
Sassy,” and really tearing it up on Charles Mingus’ “Moanin,’” with some wild ensembles.
The set by keyboardist Jon Batiste and his Stay Human band was a flop.  He purposely destroyed standards (including “The Entertainer,” “I Let
A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” “Goodbye,” “St. James Infirmary” and a pointless “Star Spangled Banner”) by playing a few bars and then making
thunderous noise from his electronics before playing a few more bars. It was broad humor without any real wit, interesting ideas or affection for
the songs.
Bassist Dave Holland’s recent group Prism is very different than his other bands for it is a fusion quartet featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks,
keyboardist Crag Taborn and drummer Eric Harland. The playing was excellent even if much of the material was not that memorable.
Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith’s In The Beginning Octet is one of the best groups that he has led. Despite the terrible sound quality, Smith and his
group (which included trombonist Alan Ferber, the Wes Montgomery-inspired guitar of Ed Cherry and tenor-saxophonist John Ellis) did a fine
job on boogaloos, hard bop and soul jazz pieces.
George Benson has performed largely the same show for the past 35 years but it is still entertaining. He teased jazz fans by starting out  with a
swinging “Mambo Inn,” welcomed guest guitarist Earl Klugh for some worthwhile funk tunes, stretched out as usual on “This Masquerade” and
“On Broadway,” and sang some disco and r&b songs. Best was seeing Benson and Klugh clearly enjoying each other’s musical company as they
played off of each other.
On Saturday night at one point Cooper Heffner, one of Hugh’s sons, went on stage to congratulate the performers and fans at the 36th Playboy
Jazz Festival, promising that there will be at least another 36 festivals. I certainly hope so, along with much improved sound and programming.
The party still has the potential to be one of the great jazz festivals.