by Scott Yanow

The 40th annual Playboy Jazz Festival featured 20 groups playing over a June weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. As usual it was a party with jazz rather than a jazz party, with the audience having a good time no matter who was on stage. They tended to give a tepid reception to all but the most danceable bands since the party was the main priority. Spirits were high, beach balls were flying, and at night hundreds of women wore lit bunny ears that made the proceedings particularly colorful. And the host George Lopez did a fine job of injecting occasional humor into the show, clearly showing affection for the festival.

But there was a major problem. For decades, Playboy had been famous for its infamously bad sound. The situation miraculously improved two years ago but this year it went back to “normal.” The sound engineers seemed unable to properly balance any of the bands, apparently thinking that the bass and the bass drum are the most important instruments, even in a big band. Several sets, particularly those of Roy Gaines and Parlor Social, were partly ruined while some of the acoustic groups, due to the extremely loud bass, were made to sound like a muddy fusion band. Next year Playboy should get rid of their incompetent sound crew and use engineers who actually pay attention to the music; it really makes the festival look (and sound) bad.

Playboy has never been a 100% jazz festival; this year it was around 80%. The non jazz groups included the powerful Cuban singer Dayne Arocena, an r&b cover band (Anthony Hamilton), and the so-so r&b vocalist Jazmine Sullivan. Tower Of Power, celebrated their 50th anniversary in a fun and spirited set, really funking it up on an extended “What Is Hip?”

Fortunately there was also quite a bit of rewarding jazz featured during the weekend. Saturday began with the Los Angeles County High School For the Arts Band and Vocal Ensemble. The band was conventional but the 13 singers were excellent, particularly on “My Shining Hour” which included rapid boppish runs from the vocalist and fine solo scatting by one of the singers (I believe Jordan Cain). Years from now when one looks at this program, chances are that some of the vocalists’ names will be recognizable as current performers.

Monsieur Perine was one of several bands heard at the festival that mixed together several different styles to achieve their own identity. There was a New Orleans jazz feel to the group (despite their two horns being tenor and trombone), some Retro Swing, influences from Columbian music, and poppish vocals (along with some scatting) by Catalina Garcia. While I wish that the band could have cut loose a bit more, it definitely held one’s interest.

Matthew Whitaker is a 17-year old pianist and organist with plenty of potential. He led a trio also including drummer Sipho Kunene and Edward Morcaldi III. switching between bass and guitar. While Whitaker could get excessive on organ, he sounded very good on a funky blues and “More Today Than Yesterday (the Charles Earland version). He clearly knows his history for he quoted “Royal Garden Blues” on one tune and concluded another piece with the very end of “Rhapsody In Blue.” In addition, Whitaker excelled on piano during Chick Corea’s “Got A Match.” He is on his way.

Quartets comprised of harp (Edmar Castaneda), harmonica (Gregoire Maret), trombone (Marshall Gilkes) and drums (Rodrigo Villalon) are not exactly common but this one worked quite well. The virtuoso harp playing of Castaneda was outstanding while Maret’s fluent harmonica solos (including on “Autumn Leaves”) showed that he at the top of his field along with Hendrik Meurkens.

The happiest surprise of the day was hearing the great veteran blues guitarist and singer Roy Gaines leading an 18-piece big band. The result was a set of rollicking blues which included some of the usual standards (“Stormy Monday,” “Goin’ To Chicago” and “Everyday I Have The Blues”) plus a few spirited originals. Gaines was in top form, the band had plenty of spirit, and the joyful set got the audience dancing.

The Miles Electric Band was quite a bit different but equally successful. Their continuous set was well paced, featured trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, Antoine Roney on soprano and a large rhythm section, and hit many of the high spots of Miles Davis’ later years without merely copying the originals. Among the recognizable pieces were “It’s About That Time,” “Of Human Nature,” “Time After Time” and “Jean Pierre.” There were hints of “Seven Steps To Heaven” in Robert Irving’s solo interlude and Dwayne “Blackbird” McKnight’s sounds on guitar were quite original.

Guitarist Lee Ritenour and his quartet with keyboardist Dave Grusin offered pleasant easy-listening music that included “Stolen Moments,” Grusin creating a piece out of “Happy Birthday,” and Ritenour playing his usual laid back solos.

Snarky Puppy has become remarkably popular in recent years. At the Bowl they played danceable grooves that included occasional horn solos from trumpeter Maz Maher (who at one point quoted Oliver Nelson’s “Hoe Down”), and saxophonists Bob Reynolds and Chris Bullock. The music was episodic, featured an impressive drum solo by JT Thomas, and included some surprises along the way.

Sunday began with the LAUSD/Beyond the Bell All-City Jazz Band. Their best soloist was their pianist, either Joey Curreri or Dalton Hayse (two are listed in the program) who on “Perdido” and a fast “Giant Steps” made it clear that he will be a professional someday.

One of the most intriguing groups of the weekend was Parlor Social played a fascinating set that they called Soulful Speakeasy. With singer Dessy DiLauro fronting the 11-piece band, the performances often started out as early jazz (including “Minnie The Moocher” “Heebies Jeebies,” “Jim Jam Jump,” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”) before quickly switching to a modernized and generally funky version of the same songs. With two dancing background singers, a pair of tap dancers featured on one number, lots of riffing, some heated solos, and a male co-host who alternated between brief raps and vaudeville-type interplay with the singer, this performance kept one guessing. The rhythm section was excellent but they should have been allowed to swing more. I would love to see Parlor Social in a club or theater with decent sound.

Kneebody is a trumpet-tenor-keyboards-bass-drums quintet but the music that they played was fusion rather than bop. They set some nice grooves, had explorative post bop solos, and displayed their own musical personality on their originals.

The Count Basie Orchestra has improved during the past few years under the leadership of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart. The arrangements sound more inventive, there were more uptempo tunes (and less routine versions of hits) than previously, and its musicianship and spirit have remained high. The band swung its way through a variety of swing tunes (including the uptempo blues “Basie Power” which had an explosive tradeoff by the alto and tenor-saxophonists), and featured the very good veteran singer Everett Greene on a Joe Williams tribute (“Everyday I Have The Blues” and “Alright OK, You Win”). Barnhart was showcased on “Ma Cherie Amor” and the group got to stretch out on “One O’Clock Jump” rather than just using it as a brief closer.

Richard Bona’s Mandekan Cubano definitely crossed a lot of stylistic boundaries while often ending up as Latin dance music. The bassist-leader sang a bit too much but the solos by the boisterous trombonist Rey Alejandre, trumpeter Dennis Hernandez and especially pianist Osmany Paredes gave the group a strong jazz content.

Next was the strongly anticipated tribute to the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard by a group called Hubtones. Trumpeters Randy Brecker, Jeremy Pelt, Nicholas Payton and David Weiss were all in top form on such songs as the uptempo blues “Byrdlike,” “Up Jumped Spring” and “Red Clay,” taking heated solos and engaging in competitive tradeoffs. One of the latter ended with Payton hitting the highest note like Roy Eldridge. However pianist Benny Green often stole the show with his inventive and inspired solos, sounding quite original while swinging up a storm. Bassist Vicente Archer and the great drummer Roy McCurdy (who took a particularly creative solo) kept the momentum flowing during this exciting set. But why didn’t anyone actually talk to the audience a little about Freddie Hubbard?

Tenor-saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who is now 80, played beautifully on three instrumentals with his Marvels, a versatile group that included guitarist Bill Frisell. However the music dropped in interest when Lucinda Williams came out. The veteran country performer sounded like a worn-out folk singer, one who did not have much feeling for jazz.

Pianist Ramsey Lewis led a colorful and well-paced hour with his quintet which included guitarist Henry Johnson and found a couple of the musicians providing background vocals. It was high-quality groove music with occasional straight ahead stretches, covering both newer material and references to many of Lewis’ earlier hits.

Although there were still two hours left, that was it for the jazz portion of the Playboy Jazz Festival, which concluded with Jazmine Sullivan (ironic that her name starts with “Jaz”) and Tower of Power.

Having attended all 40 Playboy Jazz Festivals, I am happy that it still attracts a large and enthusiastic crowd and that, even with its ups and downs, plenty of good music is heard. Hugh Hefner’s legacy lives on.


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