A diverse roster ranging from top jazz musicians to blues, soul, R&B, crossover and world-beat music filled the Hollywood Bowl for the 26th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, June 19-20.
During the quarter-century that I've reviewed this festival, programming has mixed jazz legends and emerging talent from many musical genres. The main jazz lineup included Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter, James Carter, Michel Camilo, Gerald Wilson and Charles McPherson.
Predictably, this year's top crowd favorites were blues diva Etta James and South African bandleader Hugh Masekela, as well as the smooth-jazz and world-beat bands. That's because their energy communicates better in this 18,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. The festival's party-hearty audience is not intentionally disrespectful, but the most pure-jazz groups are less attentively received than they merit. The action on the revolving turntable stage would be completely lost to those in the nosebleed bleacher sections but for an excellent sound system and two huge LED screens.
Saturday, June 19
The festival started out right in the pocket with tomorrow's stars, the impressive Washington Preparatory High School Jazz Ensemble delivering a brief set of big-band charts. The partially filled bowl crowd cheered, and again when emcee Bill Cosby called for the students' parents to stand for their own deserved ovation.
Alto master Charles McPherson's brilliant quartet, featuring his son on drums, followed with mainly originals, although the Bird-style leader closed with the familiar "Billie's Bounce."
The ninth annual edition of Cosby's hando-picked "Cos of Good Music" ensemble tossed aside the charts and music stands that marked recent years' performances to play loose and free. The '04 CosTeam had James Carter on soprano and tenor sax, Wallace Roney on trumpet, Geri Allen on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass and Ndugu Chancler on percussion (with Cos at a smaller trap set). After exhilarating readings of Dizzy's "Manteca" and Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Bright Moments," a curious rendition of "Turkey in the Straw" sometimes sounded as if the gobbler was fed LSD-laced corn, but the three leads kept it from being a farce. Another plus: Cos left his drum stool only once to pretend to lead the band.
Bassist Christian McBride startled my ears when he employed a wah-wah pedal with bowed acoustic bass on "Technicolor Nightmare." McBride, who later switched to electric, has drastically shifted his style from mainstream jazz to pursue a new musical path he calls "melting pot" music. I've always viewed that the role of jazz as an international language.
During this set, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner made his entrance with his usual flair - and the well-publicized blonde triplets, plus a spare - to sit in his front-center box.
A major aural shift took the stage in the person of South African trumpeter/band leader Hugh Masekela, who performed his 1968 hit "Grazin' in the Grass," but expanded his sound with a blend of bebop, funk and Afrobeat elements.
Smooth-jazzer Brian Culbertson's hyperactive persona pranced throughout his set, switching from electric keyboard to trombone to vocals. Guest artist Danish-born saxophonist Michael Lington, formerly with Bobby Caldwell, shared the stage and contributed to a Ray Charles tribute. That led perfectly into Yerba Buena's merger of Motown soul with African and Middle Eastern influences that makes it a great dance and festival party-band.
Unfortunately, renowned dancer-choreographer Savion Glover, performing with his TiDii jazz quintet, couldn't tap the hearts of the bowl audience in a too-long set that turned into time for meandering and snoozing. Even the dual big-screen videos couldn't hold the audience's attention in this try for diversity, which I continue to commend.
Wynton Marsalis performed a satisfyingly ear-catching mix of playful New Orleans street-beat and serious straight-ahead jazz. Then the quintet played funeral hymns in tribute to Elvin Jones and Ray Charles during the trumpeter's triumphant 10th festival appearance.
As expected, it was Etta James who commanded the most attention with her Roots Bandsmen (including sons Donto and Sametto).The sassy, funky blues queen treated listeners to many of her hits, including "Damn Your Eyes" and "I Want to Ta-Ta You, Baby," before crooning "At Last" and moving everyone to their feet on "Love and Happiness." This big-legged woman always delivers.
It was a hard act to follow, even for the Jose Rizo Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars. Since KKJZ's Latino deejay organized the band four years ago to mark the 10th anniversary of his SoCal radio show, the 16-piece ensemble has continued to flourish and issue three CDs. This set was a fitting finish for the night, propelling salsa dancers out of their seats.
Sunday, June 20
The day's sets started solidly, first the talented Hamilton High School Academy of Music Ensemble "A" delivering mainstream sounds, followed by the legendary Gerald Wilson and his orchestra.. Arms outstretched, this incredible octogenarian brought strong solos and remarkable dynamics from the musicians before introducing two vocalists: veteran Barbara Morrison and upcoming diva Renee Olstead, at 15 a confident and compelling performer, who sang separately and together. Both elicited cheers from a usually lazy afternoon audience.
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove has reworked his style with the Rh Factor, shifting from mainstream jazz to pop and R&B. His talent is still obvious, now with a more commercial edge to it. But pity Peter Cincotti, toast of the Big Apple. The young pianist-vocalist sang sweet ballads and swung hard, but never connected with this audience. It was a perfectly good nightclub act, ill-timed and misplaced at a huge outdoor festival. I remember similar circumstances in past years during sets by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Nina Simone.
One of the new acts introduced this year was the most disappointing. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, promoted as a blend of gospel, soul and R&B, was overruled by Peter Frampton-style rock licks fueled by the leader's steel guitar licks and vocals.
The Michel Camilo Trio effected an abrupt change in pace, the Dominican pianist's luminous touch fanning Caribbean and Afro-Cuban fires. Another hit with the crowd was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, incredibly hip banjo licks abetted by flamboyant synth-axe drummer Future Man.
Two mixed-marriage ensembles greatly excited the crowd. The first was Katia Moraes and Sambaguru, a sextet merging musicians from Brazil, Sri Lanka and the U.S. Fronted by colorfully garbed and face-painted booty-shaking dancers, this highly percussive band was extremely well-received.
The second was vocalist-saxophonist Femi Kuti, who added elements of infectious funk to the '70s Afrobeat style originated by his Nigerian father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, using the sometimes-raucous hybrid to deliver messages of social commentary.
Subbing for TV dad Cosby on Father's Day was Kevin Eubanks, Jay Leno's bandleader, who is advised to keep his night gig, since all he could muster were repeated intonations to "Give it up for...." and "Show your love ..." (This festival doesn't really need an emcee, just an announcer.)
The festival's closing sets were as different as two possibly could be. The penultimate performance was the acclaimed collaboration of pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Brian Blade. The first three honed their sounds with Miles Davis in the '60s, resulting in near-psychic interplay on their originals, propelled by their young drummer. Aware of this seminal affiliation, the audience was properly attentive and respectful despite repeated sound system glitches.
The final spotlight was on BWB, currently one of the hottest contemporary jazz acts. Trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and guitarist Norman Brown were a predictable late-inning with this crowd. Their collective technical abilities are considerable, and they sure make the homies go home happy. I listened a bit, then headed off-Hollywood Boulevard to Miceli's for Italian food and gently played acoustic piano.