By Devon Wendell
The Playboy Jazz Festival held its second Free Community Concert at The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall yesterday, featuring two acts dedicated to the soul of fusion-jazz.
The California weather was sunny and perfect and as the show’s emcee Pat Prescott (KTWV 94.7 The Wave) put it, this was a “Perfect Memorial Day celebration.”
Headlining the show was the Jeff Lorber Fusion featuring Patrick Lamb on soprano and tenor saxes, Gary Novak on drums, and Nathaniel Phillips on bass. Though Lorber is known as one of the great legends of fusion, it was his strong blues and gospel keyboard work that proved to be the most exhilarating during this set.
The band opened with a track from Lorber’s latest CD, Galaxy (Heads Up/Concord Music Group), entitled “Live Wire” which brought to mind a mid ‘70s Stevie Wonder fusion-soul groove. Patrick Lamb played some impressive soprano sax, though at times it lacked character and originality.
The melody line on “Chinese Herbal Medicine” had an Asian feel at first but it was Phillips’ slap bass and Lorber’s blues runs that brought this tune back to America, more specifically Lorber’s hometown of Philly.
Phillips would get a little too slap happy on bass but he held up the funk end of the rhythm. Novak brought a frenetic be-bop sensibility to the band as Lamb and Lorber soloed and presented the song’s melody lines. Each band member’s identity really came through strongly on this piece making it a set highlight.
The greatest moment of the band’s set was “Tune 88,” in which Lorber and each band member tossed aside the expected fusion and went into straight blues. Lorber seemed most pleased when sounding like an electrified Horace Silver. Lamb switched to tenor and played like he was on the South Side of Chicago. Even Phillips’ bass solo was all blues with guitar-like string bends and trills. The band’s energy got higher and higher as each member traded solos.
Unfortunately, after the song was done, the energy level took a slight dive. The rest of the set was made up of material that sounded like saccharine, cliched, smooth jazz radio-friendly fusion, giving way to overindulgence that went on a little too long until the final two numbers. “Montserrat,” “Singaraja,” “Pixel” and “Water Sign” were all examples of this musical approach. The musicianship was outstanding; it was the material that felt a little pedestrian.
The energy level did pick up on the popular “Rain Dance,” which had such a strong modern r&b groove that “Even Notorious B.I.G and Lil Kim sampled it” as Lorber explained to the enthusiastic crowd. Once again, it was Lorber’s roots based chops and comping that were most fascinating in this fusion context.
For an encore, the band played a version of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody,” which featured Lamb’s finest tenor sax work of the day. And whenever Lorber began to slip back into fusion style, he quickly loosened up and dove back into the blues.
Although there were a few lackluster moments during their set, the Jeff Lorber Fusion proved that they are a breed apart from other fusion artists in that they blend R&B, funk, blues, gospel, be-bop, and modern jazz stylings without sounding forced. Lorber has certainly earned every bit of his legendary status.
Opening the show was The Washington Prep High School Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Reggie Andrews. Instead of the usual high-school jazz big band, this ensemble was a quintet featuring Paris Tate on trombone, Daniel Del La Cruz on tenor sax, Jameel Bruner on electric keyboard, Jonathan Pena on drums, and Daniel Granados on bass.
Another aspect that set this high school band apart from the others was that there was a wonderfully relaxed arrogance to these youthful players without a hint of self consciousness.
Their set consisted entirely of early jazz-fusion, kicking off with Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” and Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa.” It was apparent from the start that the band members were really listening to each other. Tate and Del La Cruz played the melody line in unison then traded solos. Both showed soul, mastery, and most importantly, taste.
On the group’s reading of the Wayne Shorter classic “Footprints”, Del La Cruz, took a more minimalist approach and went for a breathy tone reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster, which was most refreshing considering the majority of young tenorists who try to go for John Coltrane showboating. The whole band’s approach to this piece was soft and delicate.
Jameel Bruner’s keyboard work was subtle with hints of Chick Corea and late ‘60s Herbie Hancock. His playing added color beneath the two reeds-men.
Closing the set was Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” Here, bassist Granados’ Marcus Miller style bass lines locked in with Pena’s drums which sounded like that of a young Dennis Chambers, playing both ends of the kit with groove and aggression all at once.
The Washington High Prep School Jazz Ensemble was funky, tight, and well aware of its bright future.
The pairing of the Washington Prep High School Jazz Ensemble with the Jeff Lorber Fusion was as perfect as the weather. At its best it was another fun way to usher in the 34th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, which arrives at the Hollywood Bowl on June 16th and the 17th.
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To read more posts and reviews by Devon Wendell click HERE.