by Scott Yanow
The Playboy Jazz Festival was an institution in Los Angeles during 1979-2019 with lengthy multi-artist concerts taking place at the Hollywood Bowl during a June weekend. Covid resulted in it being cancelled in 2020 and 2021 and, with Playboy no longer sponsoring the event, it has been renamed The Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival.
Although the Playboy logo was absent, the new festival looked and sounded similar to the older one in its later period. On the bright side, for the first time ever, the sound quality (which was always abysmal during the Playboy years) was excellent and was never an issue. Finally this festival had a sound crew that knows what they are doing! On the minus side, for the first time ever, there was not a program guide. Because of that, unless everything was looked up online, attendees had no way of knowing what group was coming up next. I kind of enjoyed being in the dark for it made the appearance of each new act a bit of a surprise, but I hate not having the souvenir to put next to the program guides of the past.
Saturday’s show could have been titled “Jazz As A Spice.” With the exception of Gerald Clayton’s quintet, none of the nine sets were purely jazz and some were not even close. While most of the artists included a little bit of jazz in their program, it was just a small ingredient, a bit of tokenism. One wonders why those who booked this “jazz” festival were so afraid to actually include much jazz. The seats could certainly be filled with creative and imaginative booking rather than booking groups having little to do with the music.
Saturday began with music sponsored hosted by the LA County High School For The Arts. Unlike in the past when the opening high school group would typically get just ten minutes, this year was an improvement with the bands getting a 25-minute set. The Blue Note Combo, a three-horn septet, was featured on a pair of instrumentals. They were soon joined by the 12-voice LACHSA Vocal Ensemble which sounded fine on “”What’s Going On,” the ballad “To You” and a swinging “Everybody’s Boppin.’”
Jungle Fire is a ten-piece funk group that would have had many in the Bowl dancing if they had been onstage five hours later. Their music was mostly spirited ensembles with an emphasis on Latin grooves. The local band featured infectious rhythms but the horns were underutilized and there was not much variety.
Host Arsenio Hall, who was genial and lightweight whenever he appeared on stage, typically got Gerald Clayton’s name wrong and seemed to think that he was an import from the Netherlands!
Pianist-keyboardist Clayton temporarily turned the proceedings into a jazz festival. He led a quintet that also included trumpeter Marquis Hill, altoist Logan Richardson, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Their set had passionate music (with Richardson taking several outstanding solos), a tribute to Frederick Douglas, and a feature for the muted Hill on “My Ideal.”
Tenor and soprano-saxophonist Azar Lawrence has spent much of his career playing music influenced by John Coltrane, but his recent Azar Lawrence Experience is much lighter in tone, grooves and substance, sounding like Lonnie Liston Smith in the 1970s. The group included singer Lynne Fiddmont (who sometimes sang wordlessly in the ensembles), the excellent keyboardist Robert Turner, and percussionist Munyungo Jackson but Lawrence’s solos were brief and the results were a danceable set of background music.
Veronica Swift impressed many in the past with her mastery of the bebop vocabulary and her ability to remind listeners of Anita O’Day. At the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival, it was quite a bit different as she mostly performed high-powered rock. There were a few moments when Swift briefly scatted (as on “Closer”) but the jazz content overall was very low. On Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” she sounded like Janis Joplin circa 1969 and on “Big Spender,” meant as a brief tribute to Peggy Lee, she came much closer to sounding like Liza Minnelli. While one does not blame Veronica Swift for not wanting to merely copy jazz singers of the 1950s, she is clearly still searching for her own musical identity. Hopefully she will eventually realize that jazz is her destiny.
Fewer jazz spices were apparent during Saturday’s last four groups. The modestly titled Fantastic Negrito played mostly pop rock with the leader displaying a need to express opinions on social issues but unfortunately only possessing a mediocre voice. The music was at its best when it became a bit bluesy. Guitarist Cory Wong’s group had an excellent horn section and an occasional solo (trumpeter Jay Webb did some brief triple-tonguing and saxophonist Eddie Barbash had a good spot) but much of the time the band merely accompanied the leader’s dull guitar solos. Guest saxophonist Dave Koz woke up the crowd on one number but otherwise it was a forgettable hour. Jose James did a very good job of paying tribute to Bill Withers on his hits (“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” during which the audience sang along, and “Just The Two Of Us”), had two vocal duets with the late composer’s daughter Kori Withers, and featured some adventurous piano solos from Big Yuki. But any good vibes generated by James’ strong set were soon obliterated by Saturday’s closer, The Roots. While there were three brief segments that featured decent horn solos, the endless set was dominated by loud rap that was often quite painful to hear, ending Saturday in a rather annoying fashion. The constant jumping around by the sousaphonist and electric bassist was juvenile and embarrassing.
Sunday was better and actually did include jazz; at least it was one of the main ingredients this time. The LAUSD/Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Big Band (directed by Tony White and J.B. Dyas) played such old favorites as “Perdido,” Canteloupe Island,” Lennie Niehaus’ arrangement of “Now’s The Time,” and “Blue Bossa.” Among the soloists, pianist Max Rubin was most impressive.
Keyboardist Lao Tizer performed a variety of interesting originals during his set with a group that featured altoist Eric Marienthal and a few vocals from Tita Hutchison. The often-complex music ranged from fusionish to funky but took some surprising twists and turns along the way.
The next two sets were the highpoints for the festival. Carmen Lundy has long been one of jazz’s great singers (with a range close to that of Sarah Vaughan) and a talented songwriter. Joined by a quartet that included pianist Julius Rodriguez and guitarist Andrew Renfroe, Lundy was in outstanding form, holding operatic high notes with ease, sometimes acting out her lyrics in dramatic fashion, and on one song protesting the loss of voting rights and the criminalization of abortion. She also leavened her set with some humor and hot scat-singing.
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band was even more inspired than usual. After a humorous introduction, the group was high-powered from the start with Wayne Bergeron leading the trumpet section. They performed such numbers as “T.O.P. Adjacent” (a tribute to Tower Of Power that featured Eric Marienthal), “Sing Sang Sung” (a very eccentric reworking of “Sing Sing Sing”), and the theme from “The Incredibles.” The climax took place halfway through the set with an outstanding transformation of “Rhapsody In Blue” that kept all of the main themes while stretching the piece into some unexpected and at times humorous areas.
From that point on, the festival was anti-climactic and, with the exception of Gregory Porter, devoid of much jazz. Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science set was a mish-mosh of social protest, operatic singing, rap, spoken word, and (as an occasional flavor) jazz. As Carmen Lundy showed during her set and Max Roach, Oscar Brown Jr. and Charles Mingus demonstrated in the past, the most effective social protest songs have strong melodies and memorable lyrics. Carrington’s music had neither.
Femi Kuti & The Positive Force was entertaining in small doses as the leader demonstrated some circular breathing on his saxophone. But the colorful set (which had three female dancers shaking while their backs were to the audience) was African pop music and Kuti’s voice has seen better days.
The former Christian Scott who now goes under the name of Chief Xian Atunde Adjuah largely neglected his trumpet during his hour, playing a small harp and taking some rather weak vocals. It was not until late in the set, when flutist Tivon Pennicott was featured, that the music rose above the tedious and Scott was inspired to play a bit of trumpet in the style of 1970 Miles Davis.
Class returned to the festival in the person of Gregory Porter. Joined by a quintet that included the adventurous pianist Chip Crawford and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, Porter was cheerful, optimistic, subtle, and powerful. Highlights included “On Your Way To Harlem,” “Love Is Overrated,” “Clap Your Hands,” “Take Me To The Alley,” and “I Do Not Agree.” The latter was Porter’s plea for more positive messages in music. The festival closed with Tower Of Power, always a favorite party soul band but one that since its formation in 1968 has yet to record a jazz album.
With more ambitious and inspired programming, the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival has potential. As it was, it was still a fun experience.
A brilliant guitarist, Diego Figueiredo has been busy. Born in Brazil 39 years ago, he has played music since the age of four, performed all over the world, and has led at least 26 CDs, most recently for the Arbors label. He recently brought his virtuosic and joyful style to Catalina Bar & Grill.
During the night, Figueiredo performed as both an unaccompanied soloist and in duets with pianist David Garfield. As a soloist, he turned both “Brazil” and a medley of “All the Things You Are” and “Tea For Two” into tour-de-forces, showing that (in his hands) the acoustic guitar can be an orchestra by itself. He played the request “Tico Tico,” whipped through an uptempo version of “So Danco Samba,” and created a medley of “Wave” and “Desafinado.” Figueiredo gave one the impression that he could play anything he thought of on the guitar. His solos and constant smile inspired happiness in the audience.
After Garfield joined, the two clearly enjoyed playing off of each other and creating lots of surprises on such songs as “The Waters Of March,” an emotional “Fragile,” “Morning Of The Carnival,” and “Take Five.” In addition, singer Natasha Agrama, who has a warm and friendly voice, blended in well with Figueiredo’s guitar on a few numbers including “Dindi” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.’
Diego Figueiredo is not only a brilliant talent but puts on joyful shows. See him whenever you get the chance.
ALMOST TIME FOR MONTEREY
Monterey is back, at least most of it. One of the greatest jazz festivals in the world during its first 62 years (1958-2019), it was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID and in 2021 it only had two venues operating instead of the usual six.
This year, Monterey is back up to four venues, all of the stages being outside. The lineup is remarkable and the festival, which takes place during Sept. 23-25, is a must for anyone the slightest bit interested in jazz.
Here is a list of some of the participants: Chucho Valdes, Incognito, Butcher Brown, Artemis (an all-star group with Melissa Aldana and Renee Rosnes), Veronica Swift, a reunion of Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade, the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour (which includes Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Christian Sands, and Lakecia Benjamin), Gerald Clayton, Charlie Hunter (for a set with Elling), Ravi Coltrane, Brandee Younger, Kris Bowers (presenting the premiere of a special composition commissioned by the festival), Gregory Porter, Bruce Forman with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, Nicholas Payton, Dave Stryker, Warren Wolf, the Cookers, Matthew Whitaker, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, Kyle Eastwood, Kim Nalley, Houston Person, Maria Muldaur, Akira Tana, Samara Joy, Julian Lage, The Bad Plus, Joel Ross, Keyon Harrold, Nate Smith, Henry Kaiser, and the Emmet Cohen Trio plus more.
Why hesitate? Time to book a nearby motel and count the days to Monterey!
I have a new book that is available from amazon.com. Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist. It is subtitled My Jazz Memoirs and is my 12th book and first in a few years. I discuss in an often-humorous fashion my early days and discovery of jazz, my period as the jazz editor of Record Review, the story behind my involvement with the All Music Guide, and I reminisce about some of my adventures as an amateur musician. Included are vintage interviews with Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, and Maynard Ferguson, encounters with Clint Eastwood, summaries of the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals (including a full-length review of the 1985 Playboy Festival), memories of other events (such as the IAJE Conventions), and brief snapshots of many memorable club and concert performances. There is also background information about my other books, evaluations of the jazz critics who inspired me early on, and my thoughts on jazz criticism which includes advice to up-and-coming jazz journalists. Rounding out the book is a chapter on how the jazz writing business has changed over the past 50 years, and appendixes that include the jazz greats of the past, 86 jazz giants of today, 21 young performers to look for in the future, jazz books and DVDs that everyone should own, and a dozen enjoyable Hollywood jazz films.
Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist, a paperback book, sells for $26 through Amazon.com Signed copies (which will take 2-3 weeks) are also available for $30 (which includes free postage) by sending the money via Pay Pal to firstname.lastname@example.org and by sending your mailing address to that E-mail.