JAZZ AFTER HOURS
by Scott Yanow
During these bizarre times when it is impossible (and dangerous) to go out to clubs and concerts to see live jazz, many artists are filming Livestream performances. Some concerts are free, some ask for donations, and others have a fixed fee. They help to partly satisfy one’s desire to see jazz performed live, they allow musicians to be creative again, and hopefully they help their cash flow.
Tamir Hendelman, one of the finest pianists around today, has been having weekly LiveStream concerts on Saturday nights. They can be found at http://tamirhendelman.com and information about them in more detail is at https://gem.godaddy.com/p/6df0e01/preview.
I recently enjoyed a show by the pianist that was billed as a tribute to Kenny Barron and Joao Gilberto, both of whose birthdays were in the same period of time. During the hour, Hendelman performed a swinging “East Of The Sun,” a modernized “The Girl From Ipanema,” Barron’s warm ballad “Twilight Song,” “’S Wonderful” (turned into a bossa-nova), an uptempo “Well You Needn’t,” “Estaté,” a slow and beautiful interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” and a rollicking “No More Blues.” In addition to his typically superb playing, Hendelman verbally introduced each song, often with a story. It was as if one were enjoying his playing in one’s home.
His future Saturday night LiveStreams will be on July 3 (celebrating Clifford Brown and Dexter Gordon and moved to Friday due to the Saturday July 4th holiday), July 11 (George Gershwin), July 18 (To England With Love – Celebrating George Shearing and Ray Noble), and July 25 (Duke Ellington).
It seems very strange to not be going to the Playboy Jazz Festival, which was cancelled this year. I have been at the Hollywood Bowl each June weekend since the festival’s start in 1979, so I have spent 82 days of my life at Playboy. The party atmosphere is unique and quite fun but, truth be told, if any edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival had to be cancelled, I would have picked this year’s. The proposed lineup for the 2020 festival had so little jazz (perhaps 3-4 groups out of the nine scheduled each day) that it would have been false advertising to call it a jazz festival. And the sound was so bad last year (incredibly loud on Saturday and way out of balance throughout) that it might have again been a physically painful event.
In celebration of the past festivals, here is my review for the 1985 edition from 35 years ago. This review was originally written for the Los Angeles Jazz Scene but, due to bad timing, it was never published. It includes the most exciting performance that I have ever seen, the only set that ever took place by the vocal quartet Sing Sing Sing. I sure hope that a tape of that amazing hour is found some day. My complaints about a few of the borderline groups that were booked seem a bit amusing in retrospect considering the many World Music, rock, pop and nonjazz acts that have unfortunately been part of the festival ever since.
Enjoy the trip on the time machine.
No jazz concert in Los Angeles compares to the Playboy Jazz Festival. Founded in 1979, this 2-day 17-hour weekend marathon at the Hollywood Bowl is remarkable not only for its quantity of music (18 groups this year) but for the many diverse styles of jazz represented, offering a very wide variety of styles and sounds in one place. A party atmosphere pervades the Bowl during this special weekend. Fellow ticket holders become neighbors and friends, food and drink (and other substances) are shared openly, and the music at times seems relegated to being a special attraction or a distraction. The constant din from the audience poses a challenge to the musicians, who must first get the attention of the crowd before working on obtaining their approval.
Steve Allen was the emcee this year. His often-hilarious commentary on the proceedings kept the show moving (along with Playboy’s revolving stage) and was in striking contrast to Bill Cosby in previous years. Cosby, whose idea of ad-libbing is to announce “and now Weather Report” would disappear for hours and repeat the same joke eight times over a weekend; no exaggeration. Steve
Allen, on the other hand, was prepared. “I could tell this is a jazz audience, you’re so much better behaved than a rock crowd. Not that all rock is bad. In fact, there are some members of a famous rock group here today. Take a bow, Scum of the Earth!” He then pointed at some innocent bystanders and had them acknowledge the applause. Later when the crowd was getting rowdier, he said, “I was wrong, this is a rock audience. I can tell by the smell of the smoke. There’s a fellow smoking a Camel in the 4th row. Not a cigarette; a real Camel that he roasted in the pit.” After Miles Davis finished a set in which he mostly faced his drummer, Allen commented, “That last song was from the new Miles Davis album, Pardon My Back.”
The Saturday concert (June 15) started a few minutes before 2:30 with Ann Patterson’s Maiden Voyage Orchestra playing a modernized version of “In The Mood.” Then out came the vocal trio Full Swing (Lorraine Feather, Bruce Scott and Charlotte Crossley), an excellent unit in the vein of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross although not yet of that stature. They sounded fine on songs like “The Right Idea,” “Bijou,” and a Basie tribute but there was little for the orchestra to do. Worse yet, Full Swing brought along their own electric rhythm section which proceeded to play every possible cliché since they did not understand this idiom of music. At one point on “Creole Love Call,” Bubber Miley’s famous 1927 trumpet solo was played on a synthesizer. Why not use one of the trumpeters instead? After the vocalists left, Maiden Voyage finally had a chance to cut loose on a Hank Levy arrangement of “There’ll Never Be Another You,” Stacy Rowles’ trumpet feature on “Blue” (for Blue Mitchell), and an uptempo blues original. In addition to Rowles, the standout soloists were altoist Ann Patterson and Betty O’Hara on trumpet, valve trombone and double-belled euphonium.
Next up was the fascinating Dirty Dozen Brass Band. While the two drummers (snare and bass drum) swung parade rhythms, Joseph Kirk’s amazingly fluid tuba playing performed electric bass lines and the five horns combined equal mixtures of r&b, funk and bop. A snappy staccato “Sidewinder” and a lowdown version of “Blue Monk” were unique. The group closed their set by marching offstage,
playing in the aisles for some dancers and continuing to jam into the parking lot. That is the true spirit of jazz.
Makoto Ozone emerged to play some romantic solo piano on “A Crystal Love” and to pay tribute to Chick Corea on “Coreaology.” After Michel Petrucciani explored “Someday My Prince Will Come,” the two young piano masters joined forces for several selections, blending together perfectly.
The obvious low point of the day was the lightweight pop/funk of Lee Ritenour, who does not belong at a jazz festival. Of more significance to the audience was a sudden flood of beach balls (numbering 101) contributed by a mischievous ticket holder. The beach balls, especially one huge one, created havoc and joy for hours; some lasted through the following day’s concert. At one point you could look in any direction at the crowd and see people trying desperately to eat while being bombarded by two dozen beach balls. It was rather hilarious and it succeeded in making Ritenour’s dull music more tolerable. Steve Allen followed “Captain Fingers” by announcing that the first real rock musicians were the boogie-woogie pianists of the 1920s, and he demonstrated by playing some fine
boogie-woogie piano with a trio.
Beach balls weren’t necessary to help the J.J. Johnson All-Stars. Each of his six musicians had their features. The immortal trombonist played a delightful duet with bassist Richard Davis on “Bud’s Blues,” cornetist Nat Adderley cooked on “Misterioso,” tenor-saxophonist Harold Land was explorative on “Invitation,” and the Cedar Walton Trio (with very supportive drumming from Roy McCurdy) was brilliant on “Without A Song.” Luckily this was a fairly long set and the music was inspiring; some in the audience were even caught listening. Nancy Wilson eventually joined the group, alternating some good jazz (“A Sleeping Bee”) with some more mundane soul ballads.
J.J. Johnson’s former employer Miles Davis emerged next, wearing the same black outfit and evil-looking black hat which he had used to pose for his album You’re Under Arrest (but sans machine gun). Many of his older fans have given up on Miles since he began using electronics; they have missed quite a bit. As his excellent rhythm section hit various grooves, Miles Davis wandered around the stage, his trumpet easily audible due to a cordless mike. He was in remarkable form, hitting high notes with ease, making every sound and punctuation count. Whenever a groove reached a climax, Miles would play a few odd notes and suddenly the rhythm changed. Bob Berg on tenor and soprano and guitarist John Scofield had a few excellent solos but Davis was the main force. The music was much closer to jazz than rock and, when Miles played a pure blues, it was like leaping back 30 years.
The next group figured to be anticlimactic but Joe Williams managed to win the audience over. He dedicated an odd rendition of “All Blues” to Miles Davis, singing the lyrics to “Everyday I Have The Blues” over the 6/4 rhythm. The risqué “In The Evening” got a great deal of applause as did a duet of “Alright OK You Win” with Nancy Wilson. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s alto and Red Holloway’s tenor helped to keep the place jumping. The final band of the day, Pieces Of A Dream, played some nice soul jazz, a bit reminiscent of the Ramsey Lewis Trio of the 1960s. For many, it was perfect background music as they left the Bowl to rest up for part two.
Sunday’s concert began at 2 p.m. with a pair of contest winners. The Timothy Horner Quintet, winner of the Hennessey Jazz Search over 400 other contestants, was superb. The music leaned towards the avant-garde and was quite driving. Horner’s tenor was strong as was pianist Ed Howard, but it was the four-mallet vibes work of the young Joe Locke that stole the show. This group should be recorded; there is lots of potential here. Also quite worthy was the Fullerton College Jazz Band, winner of the J.P. Jazz Festival. A colorful and melodically distorted Lex Hooper arrangement of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a superior tenor battle (Edmond Velasco and Doug Graydon) on another modernized version of “In The Mood,” and a guest appearance by the recently ill Ashley Alexander on his slide/valve superbone were the highpoints, as were the solo work of altoist Sarah Underwood and Steve Page on baritone.
Tenor-saxophonist Chico Freeman followed with a solid set. His quartet included bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Freddie Waits and a fine pianist whose name I missed. After playing originals such as “Each One, Teach One” and “Hisstory,” Freeman woke up the crowd with an emotional blues a la
Gene Ammons. When the revolving stage turned to make way for Horace Silver, Chico continued playing the blues, displaying true showmanship as the crowd waved farewell. Silver’s quintet, featuring trumpeter Brian Lynch and Ralph Moore’s tenor, sounded a lot like his 1960’s group, swinging and funky. “Gregory Is Here” had a great trumpet solo, “Nutville” and “Senor Blues” were given near-classic versions, and Horace Silver was deservedly in a happy mood. Unfortunately his set was cut short (the concert was behind schedule) so Silver’s logical closer “Song For My Father” (it was Father’s Day) was not performed.
After four straight hits, it was time for a couple of misses. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble rhythm section was strong and driving but his own screaming wa-wa rock/blues guitar was monotonous after a chorus. He stuck to the blues but his unintelligible lyrics and lack of dynamics were quite dull. And why was Ronnie Laws at this festival? His pleasant and unimaginative saxophone shared the spotlight with his vocals and that of his sister Debra Laws. The music was soul rather than jazz and quite out-of-place. I would rather have heard David Sanborn or, better yet, the World Saxophone Quartet.
But then came the highpoint of the festival, the vocal quartet Sing Sing Sing. Imagine a group with the frontline consisting of the genius of vocalese Jon Hendricks, the incredible Bobby McFerrin, Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel (what a range!), and Dianne Reeves, backed by an excellent rhythm section. Every moment the singers shared on stage was magical. On “Jumpin’ At The Woodside,” they took solos and traded two-bar phrases. Each singer began their individual features by singing a blues chorus and then a full song. Siegel’s ballad ended on a beautiful low note. McFerrin (unaccompanied) imitated an entire band, alternating 12 different sounds on an amazing “A Night In Tunisia.” He also inspired and broke up Hendricks in their duet and shared the spotlight with Siegel on a tender “Easy Living,” singing the bass lines. Dianne Reeves performed a multi-tempoed “Love For Sale” (someone in the audience yelled out “How much?”). The Manhattan Transfer’s Tim Hauser was a surprise guest, joining Siegel and Hendricks for a recreation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on “Come On Home.” Siegel and Reeves took turns belting out Helen Humes’ hilarious “Million Dollar Secret.” And to finish off the set, the four singers jammed “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” scatting furiously on a very long and exciting four-bar vamp. It was amazing music, rewarded by at least three standing ovations.
Following Sing Sing Sing was Spyro Gyra. In ways, Spyro Gyra is a fusion group for people who do not much like fusion for, although it has catchy melodies and danceable rhythms, Spyro Gyra also features strong jazz solos from Jay Beckenstein on saxophones and Dave Samuels on vibes and marimba. Most of the playing throughout the fun set was quite virtuosic and jazz-oriented. Spyro Gyra is a rarity, a group that is both very popular and quite good.
Steve Allen played some solo piano while Spyro Gyra’s equipment was taken down,
sounding a bit like Erroll Garner on “The Way You Look Tonight,” a brief “Liza” and some more boogie-woogie.
Sarah Vaughan tried her best to calm down the crowd, who was still recovering from Spyro Gyra. She sang an unaccompanied chorus of “Summertime,” excelled on the wordless “Chelsea Bridge” (utilizing her entire range), and cooked on “Just Friends.” As usual she performed “Send In The Clowns” as a semi-religious dirge. Although Sarah Vaughan received enough applause to merit an encore, she decided to skip it when she could not quiet down the audience.
The final set of the 1985 Playboy Jazz Festival featured the Buddy Rich Orchestra which Steve Allen introduced as “Ina Ray Hutton and the Melodears.” Rich was in superb form, playing drums like he was still 20 (which he was in 1937). “Bugle Call Rag,” “God Bless The Child,” and “Love For Sale” were strong but the concluding “Channel One Suite,” featuring Steve Marcus’ tenor, was the show stopper. Rich soloed furiously and creatively for nearly ten minutes on that number, a perfect way to end the best Playboy Jazz Festival to date. It was a great way to spend 17 hours.
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Be well and safe everyone. The live jazz scene will return.