28th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
June 17-18, 2006
The 28th annual Playboy Jazz Festival delivered much more pure jazz than in recent years, focusing on New Orleans roots and Latin influences rather than crossover and contemporary sounds.
Having reviewed this festival since the early '80s, I've reveled in hearing giants such as Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams and Count Basie. I've also gained a first-listen to emerging talent that included Joshua Redman, T. S. Monk, Benny Green, Bobby McFerrin and Renee Olstead. This year's festival offered a good balance of elder icons and rising stars, reassuring fans that this music continues into future generations. But an obvious missing element was a major vocalist such as Etta James, B.B. King, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, George Benson or Al Jarreau of recent years. I hungered for Tony Bennett and Diana Kralltogether. Well, maybe next year.
The lineup of jazz giants was satisfying: Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, Eddie Palmieri, Branford Marsalis, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint (teamed with Elvis Costello, more about that later). The younger set included Jamie Cullum, Hiromi, Stefon Harris, Eldar, Gerald Clayton and Christian Scott, all serious jazz musicians.
This stronger pure-jazz programming is commendable, a bold departure from a decade-long global trend at festivals including New Orleans, Montreux and North Sea, all of which lean heavily on pop, blues and rock, ostensibly to keep the events commercially viable. Playboy could have stuck with this trend, since most of the 18,000 people each day come as much for the picnicking-party aspect as for the music. No matter who's on stage, everyone has fun in the sun, whether in $125 box seats or $17.50 on bleachers at the Hollywood Bowl's upper rim. At any price, it's an aural bargain of 17 hours of non-stop music during 22 sets, thus Saturday's sold-out status with Sunday (Father's Day) only a bit lighter.
My anticipation was high for the ususual teaming of New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint with British rocker Elvis Costello, a collaboration that began after they met at Katrina benefit concerts. This gospel-meets-rock set excerpted their The River in Reverse album that both laments and celebrates elements of the hurricane. Costello's vocals, backed by his Imposters band enhanced by a Big Easy horn section, merged brilliantly with Toussaint's soulful style. Incredible. Unforgettable.
The runner-up best-set was played by the Alpha "new kid on the block," British pianist-vocalist Jamie Cullum, 23. He oozed infectious energy, cavorting on the proscenium, vaulting into the air, banging his fists on the piano top and singing his heart out on every tune, especially a Ray Charles-meets-Al Jarreau rendition of "I Know a Girl (based on "I Got a Woman ). He sure does try harder.
The festival's revolving stage keeps the program moving, one band spinning out of sight as another begins playing while revolving into view, a cleverly efficient concept inspired by a record turntable; I call it "jazz on the half-shell. The amphitheater's sound system is well-controlled, with few glitches this year. Twin jumbo LED screens on either side of the stage provide close-up views, along with two evening-only video screens for those seated in the nosebleed sections.
Festival producer George Wein turned to Harlem for two of the acts, the electrifying Spanish Harlem Orchestra from Manhattan's Hispanic culture, and the McCullough Sons of Thunder blending soulful gospel with marching-band syncopation.
Saturday's lineup glided along in a laid-back mood via the dignified jazz of the Golden Strikers with bassist Ron Carter's rich resonance and guitarist Russell Malone's riffing forays, but I think Mulgrew Miller's super-size piano solos filled a lesser role than deserved. The Benny Golson Quartet conveyed prime old-school jazz, the 77-year-old leader treating fans to a set illuminated by his mega-hits "Killer Joe and "I Remember Clifford.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet delivered post-modernly, providing opportunities for pianist Joey Calderazzo to use what sounded like 20 fingers on the keys, before a nod to Thelonious Monk provided a bit of aural space during the super-intense set. Stanley Clarke and George Duke rotated in to add the requisite contemporary-electronic element, more Billy Joel than the late and lamented Return to Forever or Frank Zappa. Spanish Harlem's bombastic Saturday-night closing set propelled listeners into dance frenzy, inspired by the band's front-line vocalists with Platters-style moves. Listeners also roused to dance with two other Latin percussive ensembles, Ozomatli and Eddie Palmieri's Afro-Caribbean Jazz All-Stars. Muy caliente!
Sunday brought another eclectic mix. Sandwiched between the gospel-rooted sounds of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Sons of Thunder that incited Second-Line napkin-waving and parasol-strutting was Chuck Mangione's mellow flugelhorn taking on "Bellavia and "Chase the Clouds Away. It was effective contrast, a must for an all-day festival to keep the audience involved. But it wasn't a great setup for pianist McCoy Tyner, his tapestry-dense format struggling to connect with an aroused audience. And then a most disturbing concept: bringing out the Lula Washington Dance Theatre from L.A., relegating this piano giant to playing for leaping, swirling figures. Distracting, disrespectful, disappointing.
From the younger set, Japanese pianist Hiromi, 27, slammed her forearm and elbow to deliver percussive power on the baby grand, adding electric keyboard work for a funk mode. A fourth dazzler was New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, 22, whose breathy tone makes the ear think of saxophone rather than brass. He had his own set, but also was part of emcee Bill Cosby's Cos of Good Music, a stellar septet that showcased another youngblood, pianist Gerald Clayton (26, son of bandleader-bassist John), also providing Steve Turre plenty of time to play surprisingly melodic conch shells. One-name wonder, 19-year-old prodigy pianist Eldar (Djangirov) channeled Art Tatum's extraordinary style, adding modern elements and exciting harmonies.
Local favorites included the powerhouse Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra delivering slamming section work and expressive soloists, plus a Milt Jackson tribute segment with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, 30, who proved true to his guru. Lesa Terry and the Women's Jazz Orchestra of Los Angeles staged 18 strings including a super-swinging harpist.
Addendum: At 80, Hugh Hefner exhibited sharp memory and quick wit during a 25-minute press conference. He loves the world of jazz, he said, because it comes from such diverse sounds "and that's what America is all about, diversity. Asked if he would rather live in the past or future, he said he would prefer the 1920s through the 1940s because of the music. "Jazz is the music that fueled my dreams. When I asked what jazz instrument he would choose to play professionally, he said it was tough to pick just one. Knowing of his current triplet companions, I quickly added, "How about three? and he replied, "trumpet, baritone sax and piano. His bio lists favorites Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Bill Evans, and a new Concord CD, Hef's Favorites, features vocalists June Christy, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington.
David Aragon / Patricia Myers / Peter Iovino