| The 37th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, 15 ½ hours of music featured over a two-day weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, was the best
edition in at least several years. The partying and often noisy but joyous crowd and the overly eclectic programming are constants but
there were two major improvements from the past. George Lopez’s emceeing was excellent, with the host offering 30 seconds of witty
and often-informative comments between groups that was just perfect for the setting. That was quite a change from the previous host.
Even more important, for the first time in over 30 years, the sound emanating from the stage was excellent. One could hear every
soloist, the balance made sense, and the sound quality (which had sunk many bands in the past) was never an issue. To those of us who
remember the Count Basie big band being drowned out completely for an entire set by a bass drum, this was a remarkable
As always, jazz fans could easily criticize the lineup. Of the 20 groups, seven mostly had nothing to do with jazz: Morgan James
(r&b/soul), Aloe Blacc (dance music/light soul), Tower Of Power (the classic r&b band), the Jones Family Singers (gospel), Third
World (reggae), Ledisi (r&b/funk) and the unclassifiable Ozomatli (who did feature some excellent dancers and threw large balloons
out to the audience). Although none of these groups belong at a jazz festival (do reggae and r&b festivals feel compelled to book several
jazz groups?), each was somewhat entertaining with Third World’s lead singer amazing the audience by breaking into opera for their
closing number (getting the weekend’s biggest ovation). Ledisi at one point sang an unaccompanied “Straight No Chaser,” scatting
effectively for a few choruses before returning to her usual funk show. It was as if she was saying, “See, I can sing jazz. I just don’t want
Fortunately the other 13 groups did want to perform jazz. Saturday and Sunday were both well balanced with ten bands apiece, six
or seven of which played jazz including a student group and one major fizzle in the middle of the day. Jason Moran, a brilliant and
adventurous pianist, unfortunately has been leading what he calls his “Fats Waller Dance Party.” Instead of playing Waller’s music or
modernizing it, he used snippets of it (a chorus here and there) and otherwise had his band jamming endlessly over one-chord vamps
with an emphasis on repetition. The music was never interesting for more than a minute at a time before it changed. While his
trumpeter Leron Thomas sang well on “Two Sleepy People,” his female vocalist was one of the worst I have heard in some time, yelling
rather than singing and never trying to actually hit a note.
Also a flop was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. On Sunday afternoon the audience was dying to dance to some New Orleans jazz
and were ready to wave their white handkerchiefs. But rather than play a 20-minute version of “The Saints” (which would have caused
the place to explode) or “Bourbon Street Parade,” Preservation Hall emphasized vocal novelties and forgettable originals. They played
“The Peanut Vendor” and even “Sir Duke” but very little rollicking jazz, wasting their opportunity during their disappointing set.
However virtually everything else worked at Playboy this year. Saturday began with the Los Angeles County High School for the
Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble which consists of 16 young singers and a rhythm section. Their versions of “The Night Has A Thousand
Eyes,” “To You” and “Stolen Moments’ were a little reminiscent of Singers Unlimited and the soloists (including Abigail Berry, Caleb
Collins, and Henry Tull) were excellent.
Tenor-saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013, was
showcased in a trio with bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Reuckert. She displayed a soft tone reminiscent of Charles Lloyd,
a relaxed style, and the ability to play quietly adventurous solos. “My Ship” and her tribute to Sonny Rollins (“Back Home”) were
The Campbell Brothers, featuring Chuck Campbell on pedal steel guitar and Darick Campbell on steel guitar, usually play rockish
r&b-flavored gospel music However at Playboy they had more challenging material, performing John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
From their opening chant of the piece’s title through some surprisingly swinging solos, their set was a happy surprise. They retained
the essence of Coltrane’s masterwork, infused it with their own personalities, and showed that they could play jazz quite effectively.
Gerald Wilson’s musical life was celebrated by a reunion of his big band under the direction of his son guitarist Anthony Wilson.
This was not only a heartfelt tribute but an exciting set of music featuring such numbers as the explosive “Triple Chase” (the
passionate saxophone solo from tenor Kamasi Washington and a screaming one from baritonist Terry Landry were perfect)
“Romance” (from Wilson’s Monterey suite), his arrangement of “Perdido” which he wrote for Duke Ellington, the uptempo blues
“Nancy Jo” (featuring some hot playing by trumpeter Winston Byrd), “Blues For Yna Yna,” and of course “Viva Tirado.” The orchestra
sounded inspired with many soloists heard from including tenors Kazumi Washington and Rickey Woodard, altoist Randall Willis,
soprano-saxophonist Scott Mayo, trombonist George Bohannon and trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez (on “Viva Tirado”). Winston Byrd’s
high notes in the ensembles were quite stirring. The only thing that was missing was Gerald Wilson’s colorful conducting.
The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble, a septet that included singer Michael Mayo as part of the
ensembles, is filled with very confident up-and-coming musicians. They were joined for most of their set by Herbie Hancock and
Wayne Shorter. Pianist Carmen Staaf often took solo honors.
Veteran Latin jazz giant Eddie Palmieri hosted an unusual performance. The pianist and his rhythm section (bass, congas, bongos
and timbales) were joined on one song apiece by baritonist Ronnie Cuber, vibraphonist Joe Locke, violinist Alfredo de la Fe and altoist
Donald Harrison. Each of the soloists was in top form while Palmieri also took his share of solo space, often taking the music outside.
The set concluded logically with all four guests getting to interact with each other.
Sunday started off with the LAUSD/Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Big Band, a conventional high school band. The Dizzy Gillespie
Big Band played an outstanding set, only hurt by the fact that its leader-bassist John Lee rarely identified soloists or the song titles.
Their music included “Hot House,” “I’m Bebopping Too” (with altoist Mark Gross taking a fine vocal), “Tin Tin Deo” and an uptempo
“Lover Come Back To Me.” The ensembles often sounded very much like 1949, the many soloists (which included 88-year old tenor-
saxophonist Jimmy Heath, altoist Antonio Hart, trombonists Steve Davis and Jason Jackson, pianist Abelita Mateus, and trumpeters
Claudio Roditi, Freddie Hendrix and Gregory Gisbert plus others) were outstanding and the trumpet section was explosive. They
climaxed their hour with one of the most exciting versions ever heard of Gillespie’s futuristic “Things To Come.” Hart was explosive
during his solo and the trumpet section screamed throughout.
The other three Sunday sets were also outstanding, serving to show where modern jazz is today. Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary Band
consisted of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, tenor-saxophonist Marcus Strickland, keyboardist Robert Glasper, guitarist Lionel
Loueke, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott. They performed advanced post bop jazz (originals plus Wayne Shorter’s
“Witch Hunt”) with each of the musicians being well featured. Ambrose’s solos were colorful and creative, Strickland was always
inventive, Glasper excelled on both acoustic and electric keyboards, and Loueke created a wide variety of colorful percussive sounds
on his guitar.
Terence Blanchard has been one of jazz’s finest trumpeters of the past 30 years. His new group, E-Collective, is a high-quality
fusion band that included keyboardist Fabian Almazan and guitarist Charles Altura. While Blanchard sometimes hinted at Miles Davis,
he also showed plenty of individuality during the groove-oriented music which included such originals as “Soldiers,” “Tom and Jerry”
and “Dear Jimi” (a tribute to Jimi Hendrix) plus Les McCann’s “Compared To What.” The moody and atmospheric music, which was
sometimes a bit like that of Pat Metheny, was at its most exciting when Blanchard was blasting out emotional high notes.
The other group, Snarky Puppy, pointed the way towards one of jazz’s possible futures, at least on the electronic side. The avant-
groove band, which matches two horns (plus a guest saxophonist) with a large rhythm section, performed catchy riffs, featured some
rockish guitar, swung hard in spots, and displayed both color and versatility. They won over the audience with their enthusiasm.
The Playboy Jazz Festival, which has already announced the dates for the 2016 festival, is alive and well. Now if only it would
replace the pop/reggae/gospel/r&b bands in the future with jazz groups, it could be one of the truly great jazz festivals while keeping
its spirited audience.