Playboy Jazz Festival
June 16-17, 2007
The 29th annual Playboy Jazz Festival sustained its reputation for staging an eclectic musical mix, but this time featured twelve straight-ahead jazz sets for more than half the lineup during the two-day event in the Hollywood Bowl. The festival's balanced programming offered five Latin sessions interspersed among the jazz, and programming was spiced by funk, African-influenced and basic-blues sets, with just one major smooth-jazz act, a departure from recent years.
Etta James performed next-to-last on Sunday, strolling on with attitude in a form 200 pounds lighter (via gastric bypass). She wasted no time doing her hits: "I'd Rather Be a Blind Girl, I Want to Ta-Ta You, Baby, "At Last and "Sugar on the Floor. She panther-prowled the stage, still doing her always-provocative rear-view pose. After more than 50 years of performing, Etta is physically smaller, but she's bigger and better than ever in giving fans what they want and expect.
Early-day sets don't get much attention, although two jumbo-screens on either side of the revolving- turntable stage provide close-ups and detail for the upper stands, with two more added after dark.
Saturday was launched, as always, with a top local student group, Eagle Rock High School Jazz Ensemble, followed by Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad with Latin-funk. Next, James Carter plied his soprano sax and flute with an organ trio that swung from start to finish.
That brought the annual favorite, emcee Bill Cosby's annual Cos of Good Music. This handpicked octet played a variety of charts, from James Brown funk to Billy Strayhorn soul to Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man. Each member of the assemblage was featured, as Cos pretended to direct major-league pros Dwayne Burno, Ndugu Chancler, Carter, Vincent Herring, Ron Johnson, Ray Parker Jr., Jeremy Pelt and Larry Willis. The perennial farce, but great music.
The Randy Brecker-Bill Evans Soulbop Band was a funky fusion set that fueled the audience, showcasing the co-l
eaders well, especially during "Above and Below, an original from the Brecker Brothers era, sadly remindful of the loss of Michael earlier this year.
The strong jazz style of Phil Woods prompted little audience reaction, mostly because it cane during the 6-7 p.m. "dinner hour. Too bad because the altoist's searing riffs were matched by pianist Bill Charlap's inventive explorations.
What came next put nearly everyone on the edges of or out of their seats: Angelique' Kidjo's a fiery new vocal sound enticed many to dance in the aisles after she left the stage to join them.
It was the proverbial "hard act to follow, but the Basie band was just the one to do it by roaring through ten familiar charts. Rock-solid section work was combined with quality solos, as drummer Butch Miles played his Basie retirement set after so many road-years. Of course, it was "April in Paris that brought the biggest crowd reaction as "one more time echoed across the Bowl.
Then it was back to Latin style with Issac Delgado's powerful band, the young leader singing and stepping as revolving overhead spots boosted the visual effect. Contrast followed with smooth-trumpeter Chris Botti soothing via Burt Bacharach's oldie "The Look of Love after a surprising opening of "Ave Maria, proving that you never quite know what you're going to hear at a Playboy jazz festival.
As always on Sunday, many seats were empty until after 5 p.m., but Malcolm-Jamal Warner's "Miles Long set didn't slack, nor did Eigsti's quartet that followed, his considerable keyboard chops showcased in a stunning delivery of "Caravan.
The day's third set, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas had not much to do with the latter genre of music, but traditional rub-board sounds incited some sections into the dance mode. During these two hours, upper-bleacher seaters were in flux of unpacking coolers and food, and the sparse lower box occupants showed minimal appreciation.
Red Holloway's set changed that environment as the 80-year-old delivered strongly on alto and tenor saxophones, especially on "Fuji Mama.
Red's set included Eigsti for the first three charts, then vocalist Kevin Mahogany and his pianist entered to thrill the crowd with a moving rendition of "Fools Rush In and amazing scat-work on "Yardbird Suite. Extra elements such as these fuel interest without distracting from the main man.
The opposite was true during the world premier of brilliant Arturo Sandoval's Mambo Mania Big Band, which had no need of the four fiery dancers, which were an unnecessary distraction. Sandoval played dazzling melodic and screech trumpet, also timbales, piano and maracas. He reached back to the '50s for Perez Prado's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White to supplement the main mambo menu, prompting conga lines from the lower boxes.
In between, bassist Richard Bona channeled Jaco Pastorius while saluting his own African roots and Brazilian influences. In the next set, Terence Blanchard's trumpet blew hot as he merged African and Middle Eastern sounds. The charts were sparked by saxophonist Brice Winston, whom the leader described as "the eighth wonder of the world, a jazz musician from Tucson (Blanchard must not realize that Tucson and Phoenix have 30-year reputations for abundant jazz activity, producing New York-based stars such as drummer Lewis Nash, saxophonist Tony Malaby and Winston.)
Bassist Marcus Miller delivered funk-groove, adding harmonica and organ for Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground and The Beatles' "Come Together (prompting swaying audience singalongs). "When I Fall in Love fell victim to too much gimmickry via three electric keyboards, funky percussion and a bass clarinet.
Vocalist Dianne Reeves varied her set to include her usual message-songs and familiar ballads, but the result lacked energy from too many slow charts for an outdoor crowd.
Guitarist-vocalist Norman Brown's Summer Storm band closed the festival, featuring saxophonist Marion Meadows, keyboardist Jeff Lorber and singer Peabo Bryson (superb on "Show and Tell ). This combination of stars kept the energy at a super-high level, but many still left the Bowl early, invariably thinking of Monday morning responsibilities.
Addendum: A special treat in the Bowl's nosebleed section was a large quilt of a dozen vintage Playboy festival t-shirts, hand-made by collector John Berkheimer of Phoenix, attracting a constant stream of admirers.