by Scott Yanow
With apologies to Charles Dickens: It was the best of times (the Sunday half of the Playboy Jazz Festival), it was the worst of times (Saturday), it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
The 41st Playboy Jazz Festival was certainly one of the more schizophrenic editions. Saturday looked like it could be a great festival. The venue (the Hollywood Bowl) was beautiful, the weather was perfect, the stadium was packed, the beach balls were flying, spirits were high and, although the sound was lousy (more on that later), with ten groups scheduled, the potential seemed unlimited. As it turned out all that was missing was jazz. If the world’s greatest detectives had been called together, they would have had difficulty finding much jazz that day.
The first group, the Valencia Vikings High School Two N’ Four Vocal Jazz Ensemble, let one know that it would be a mixed (or mixed-up) musical bag. The 16 singers and their rhythm section started out fine with an uptempo “Lover Come Back To Me,” but most of the rest of their short set was purely r&b.
The next two bands were completely destroyed by the horrifying balance and extremely loud volume which was sometimes physically painful. After all of these years, isn’t it about time that Playboy hired a competent sound crew? All of the ones working that day should have been fired immediately for their incompetence and indifference. Jazz In Pink, a mostly female group that included keyboardist Gail Jhonson and violinist Karen Briggs, essentially played smooth music at a volume level of 20, while the harpist (situated in the middle of the stage) was completely inaudible. Even a version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” was pretty schlocky.
During a so-so set headed by keyboardist-saxophonist Terrace Martin that was dominated by mediocre r&b singers, the loudest instrument was the bongos. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes, who was featured on two numbers, was the only part of that hour worth hearing.
The arrival of 90-year old tenor-saxophonist Benny Golson and his quartet (with pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist Mike Gurrola and drummer Roy McCurdy) gave one a sigh of relief. Jazz had arrived at Playboy and the sound crew remembered to turn on their microphones. Golson’s tone (but not his ideas) has declined a bit but he walked and talked fine (standing up for the full set) and was in good humor as he played a set of his tunes including such standards as “Whisper Not,” “I Remember Clifford” (which had his best solo), “Stablemates,” “Along Came Betty” and “Blues March.” It is a pity that he did not play “Killer Joe” which might have woken up the partying crowd a little.
A lengthy tribute to the late drummer Ndugu Chancler had jazz as part of the program along with lots of r&b and soul, sort of like his career. Ernie Watts got in some good solos on tenor but the vocalists were forgettable. The biggest disappointment of the day was Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective. Blanchard is one of the world’s great trumpeters but his fusion group (despite having Taylor Eigsti on keyboards) displayed no real personality. The first two numbers featured the soulful singing of Quiana Lynell on a funky song and “Come Sunday,” guitarist Charles Altura had a long feature in the vein of Pat Metheny, and the set concluded with an avant-funk number. Blanchard played keyboards most of the time and only took one trumpet solo, electrifying his horn and creating dissonant chords that made it sound like he had been recorded on a warped cassette. What was he thinking?
Angelique Kidjo, Sheila E., and Kool and the Gang were three of the four remaining groups during that endless day. None performed anything approaching jazz with Sheila E.’s preachy rock act pretending that she was some kind of folk hero (actually singing a funk version of “The Star Spangled Banner”) and telling the audience to choose love over hate while she trotted out inferior music. At least Kool and the Gang were entertaining and had the best horn playing of the day. But why is Playboy becoming a refuge for nostalgic r&b and pop bands from decades ago?
The best music of Saturday was provided by Bela Fleck’s Flecktones. The unique group features Fleck (the world’s only fusion banjoist), the brilliant Howard Levy (sometimes playing virtuoso harmonica lines and piano at the same time), the masterful bassist Victor Wooten, and Roy “Futureman” Wooten on drumitar (a portable synthesizer that sounds exactly like a set of drums). The quartet featured complex time signatures, quirky melodies, rapid unisons from banjo and harmonica, and a joyful spirit that kept them entertaining. They sound like no other band in the world. If only the rest of Saturday was close to this level.
After making it through the Playboy Dance Festival on Saturday, it was difficult to be optimistic about the next day’s schedule, and yet Sunday’s festival was the complete opposite of what jazz fans had to suffer through the day before. The LAUSD/Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Band, a group of high schoolers, sounded pretty good on “Blue Bossa” and “Billie’s Bounce.” Pianist Dalton Hayse, the strongest soloist, showed plenty of potential for the future.
The next two groups featured important new discoveries. Singer Michael Mayo, who was joined by three excellent background singers (Erin Bentlage, India Carney and Gregory Fletcher), keyboardist Jacob Mann, bass and drums, has a conventional and cheerful voice that is a throwback to the 1950s and ‘60s. But at the same time, the pieces he sang were quite adventurous with wide interval jumps, plenty of key changes, and unpredictable twists and turns. One atmospheric song consisted entirely of the two lines “It haunts me” and “”Something about the way you move” repeated throughout the piece by the singers, and somehow it worked. Mayo scats in his own fresh style, he has a wide range, and he sounded confident and relaxed despite the complexity of the music, making it all sound more accessible than it was. When the other vocalists joined in and sang wordlessly, it was like hearing a 21st century version of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Also quite intriguing was the music of pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa’s quartet. A virtuoso from Cuba, Lopez-Nussa played fresh post-bop jazz mixed in with traditional sounding Cuban melodies. One song was a hilarious updating of Dixieland with a tempo that purposely sped up, growls and smears from trumpeter Mayquel Gonzalez (who is clearly very familiar with early jazz) that sounded like he was a refugee from the 1930s, hot drumming by Ruy Adrian Lopez-Nussa, and alert percussive bass playing from Luques Curtis. Other songs were a bit more somber but even then the pianist’s wit came through. A hypnotic piano-cajon duet with his brother was particularly memorable. The pianist concluded the set by telling the crowd “It’s my dream to play at the Hollywood Bowl.” Hopefully he will be back many more times.
The talented tenor-saxophonist Donny McCaslin was part of David Bowie’s final album and he has been playing rock-oriented music much of the time since. While one could imagine his passionate sound fitting in comfortably in that setting, his current group Blow liberally featured an annoying singer-guitarist who is not worthy of the concept. The only bright moment of this hour was when McCaslin took a long unaccompanied solo but otherwise it was a surprisingly boring set.
While few would think of Gambian kora player and singer Sona Jobarteh as a jazz performer, she took fine solos, featured an excellent guitarist in Derek Johnson, exuded a great deal of charm, and performed her gentle folk music with a jazz sensibility, not being shy to improvise. She won the audience over easily and could have played twice as long.
The Cookers consists of five giants from the late 1960s (tenor-saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart) plus two slightly younger players (altoist Donald Harrison and leader-trumpeter David Weiss). Their stormy and powerful music (including “Call Of The Wild and Peaceful Heart” and Harper’s “Croquet Ballet”) was full of fire and high energy, showing that each of these veteran musicians are still very much in their prime.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was the first New Orleans brass band to embrace other types of music (including funk, r&b and rock) in their repertoire. While it was a little disappointing that, instead of separate snare and bass drummers, they featured a conventional drum set (which took some of the parade elements out of the music) at Playboy, they performed a set full of New Orleans spirit. Best was a two-part tribute to the recently deceased Dr. John that had a dirge version of “That Old Rugged Cross” followed by the celebratory “It’s All Over Now.” With the mighty Kirk Joseph on sousaphone driving the ensembles, the Dirty Dozen played their renditions of New Orleans funk and r&b with plenty of enthusiasm.
Maceo Parker became famous as the funky alto-sax soloist with James Brown but in recent times he has been doing an increasingly effective job imitating Ray Charles while fronting a powerful big band filled with alumni from Charles’ groups. After the band romped through “One Mint Julep,” Parker (often wearing sun glasses and moving like Brother Ray) did a fine job singing such numbers as “Let The Good Times Roll,” “Georgia On My Mind and, with a new version of the Raelettes, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “What’d I Say.” It was fun.
The Playboy Jazz Festival closed with two nonjazz groups. Boz Scaggs played some of his pop/rock hits but was at his best performing three straight blues including “Walking Stick” and a Bobby Blue Bland song. He should do much more of that in concert. The Family Stone with lead vocals by Phune Stone gave the Playboy crowd one last chance to have a funky dance party.
It will be interesting to see which of these two Playboy Jazz Festivals dominate in the future. There are so many worthy talents on the jazz scene today, some of whom play music that is danceable, that hopefully Sunday’s mostly excellent lineup will be the festival’s future direction.