27th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
June 11-12, 2005
Hollywood Bowl, California
Although the "pure element of its name further erodes every year, the annual Playboy Jazz Festival always plays to nearly sold-out crowds. That's because most of the 18,000 listeners are there to party first and enjoy the performers as a secondary pleasure. No matter who is on stage, everyone always has a wonderful time, whether in pricey box seats or waaaay up in the bleachers sections of the Hollywood Bowl. That's because there are few restrictions on bringing in food and beverages (only the size of coolers).
As a reviewer during the past two decades, I'm focused first on the music because that's my job. Festival-goers like noshing and drinking to live music, too, but they pay attention only to certain performers. That's undoubtedly why the festival mixes more world music into its original jazz and blues format. Dedicated jazz listeners arrive early in the afternoon and the overall audience shows respect for legendary figures. But it is the get-down sound of blues, Latin and electronic music that ignites this audience.
The festival's beloved turntable stage keeps the program moving on schedule, a band spinning out of sight on one half as another is playing as it revolves into view, a wonderful concept. The massive amphitheater's sound system seems to be more under control every year, only a few amplification problems when several soloists were alternating in the same ensemble. Twin jumbo video screens on either side of the stage satisfied listeners in the nosebleed sections.
Saturday was the stronger of the two days with advance tickets sold out, but not on Sunday, but the second-day crowd was no less enthusiastic. Here's a selective review of highlights from 22 sets and seventeen hours of music.
Norman Brown's Summer Storm 2005 was the killer closing set on Saturday. The fusion session (pop, R&B, blues, contemporary jazz) starred the guitarist-vocalist adding silky-voiced Peabo Bryson, gifted singer/songwriter Brenda Russell and the soul-jazz sounds of saxophonist Everette Harp to rouse the dancing crowd during the entire performance.
Predictably, contemporary vocalist/guitarist George Benson was Sunday's top star. Early in the set, he delivered his huge 1976 hit "Breezin' and then "Masquerade, followed by the popular "Moody's Mood for Love (with Donny Hathaway's daughter Kenya singing the female part). He closed the set with a winning trifecta of "Give Me the Night, "Broadway and "The Greatest Love of All.
Blues masters Keb' Mo' and Dr. John satisfied funkophiles and prompted the tradition of white hanky-waving in separate sets on Saturday and Sunday. Keb' played slide on his Dobro for wonderful funky blues, while the New Orleans star delivered a spicy gumbo groove.
Classy Ramsey Lewis did his best to gain the crowd's attention without playing his near-cliché hit "Hang on Sloopy by infusing gospel licks into every selection, turning the crowd serene and muted after a roaring big band set.
That set featured the incomparable Dee Dee Bridgewater delivering one Ella Fitzgerald hit after another (the focus of her newest CD) while singing with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra Legacy. The band was led by Jon Faddis, fueled by his impossibly high trumpet tones. When Bridgewater sang Jones' legendary "A Child Is Born, she held his granddaughter, Samora Jones, for a touching moment.
Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band was a powerful machine that dug a deep swing groove, but unfortunately was scheduled as the last set on Sunday when most of the audience tends to leave early because the weekend is about over and jobs await.
Veteran mainstream musicians earned applause and cheers during the festival: Stix Hooper and Viewpoint delivered sweet sambas and great solos; jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell teamed with relative youngster organist Joey DeFrancesco for a swinging tribute to late B3 king Jimmy Smith; drummer Chico Hamilton led his band Euphoria in a series of jazz standards; and vibraphonist Roy Ayers meshed jazz and Motown licks.
Boney James, with his sassy smooth-jazz sax and dancing feet, incited people to get up and move, move, move. Contrasting sounds were delivered by the Saxophone Summit of Joshua Redman (who played an earlier set with his Elastic Band, then subbed for Michael Brecker), Dave Liebman, and Joe Lovano. The dense contrapuntal explorations elicited sporadic surges of cheers, but it was far too complex for most ears.
The Latin sound came via a lively set of Cuban danzons led by octogenarian Israel "Cachao Lopez with the Cineson All-Stars, plus a guest appearance of reedsman Paquito D'Rivera, resulting in exciting musical fire. Also on the festival program was sizzling salsa singer Gilberto Santa Rosa with his danceable Puerto Rican sound.
A new vocalist this year was big-voiced Ledisi, who merged gospel, jazz and blues. Missing from Ramsey Lewis' scheduled lineup was 15-year-old singer Renee Olstead, a crowd favorite of the past two years who always delivered far beyond her years.
The festival's always-diverse format offered the 20-dancer Jazz Tap Ensemble and Caravan Project, and the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra from Los Angeles, a 45-member symphonic ensemble accompanying rappers, a surprising visual and aural feast.
Addendum: The two high school big bands that performed proved they were quite ready for prime time with solid section work. Absent this year was Bill Cosby as emcee (Kevin Eubanks of The Tonight Show filled the role) and his star-studded Cos of Good Music.
Visit the Playboy Jazz Festival on the web or call 310-449-4070.