By Don Heckman
It’s coming up to that time of year again. Summer doesn’t really seem to spread its golden wings in Los Angeles until the annual middle of June Playboy Jazz Festival. And the first advance word about the annual event is always presented in a mid-February press conference at the Playboy Mansion.
As it was yesterday, when producer Darlene Chan introduced the line-ups for this year’s two-day Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Before she began to announce the names, however, she presented the Festival’s new master of ceremonies, replacing Bill Cosby who retired from the job last summer after more than thirty years.
The new emcee is versatile entertainer/actor/comedian George Lopez. Best known as the star of the ABC sitcom, George Lopez he also had his own talk show, Lopez Tonight on TBS and twice hosted the Latin Grammy Awards show. Aiding Chan in the introduction of the Festival line-ups Lopez effectively demonstrated the intriguing combination of ebullient humor and jazz awareness that he will bring to his new role.
No mention, however, was made of the stellar Bill Cosby-led bands – the Cos of Good Music – that brought so many immensely engaging jazz ensembles to past Festivals. Apparently Lopez will not be fronting his own Lopez of Good Music.
That said, there’s nothing to argue about with the two day line ups for the 35th Anniversary Playboy Jazz Festival. The first problem facing producer Chan is the fundamental issue of how to fill 18,000 Hollywood Bowl seats for two consecutive days. As I’ve mentioned in past Playboy Festival reviews, current jazz programming doesn’t have the luxury of the sort of iconic line ups – Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. – that were available in the Festivals early years.
The solution – at Playboy, as well as at the Monterey, Newport, Montreal (and beyond) events – has been leaning toward diversity. Rather than attempt to produce a pure jazz program, producers (Chan among them) are tending to stage a musical collective filled with artists from genres that fit compatibly with jazz, as well as artists who are expanding the definitions of the improvisational art.
Saturday’s bill, for example, includes: the extraordinary a cappella vocals of Naturally 7; the world music of Angelique Kidjo, the creative adventuring of the Robert Glasper Experiment; and the blending of Lee Ritenour’s guitar with the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band; Poncho Sanchez’s Latin jazz versions of John Coltrane classics.
And don’t forget the presence of Herbie Hancock with Naturally 7, as well as the more traditional excursions of George Duke, singer Gregory Porter, the immensely talented young saxophonist Grace Kelly, and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble.
The same, with a somewhat different slant, can be said for Sunday’s schedule, which is equally eclectic, reaching from the dynamic drumming of Sheila E. and the jamming of Trombone Shorty to the lush vocalizing of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo chorus and the interplay of pianist ELEW with the Jazz Antiqua Dance Ensemble. All of it again interspersed with the irresistible jazz stylings of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with a tribute to Quincy Jones on his 80th birthday, the Bob James/David Sanborn group, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (in a tribute to their father) and the vocals of India.Arie.
There’s more, as well. All of it entertaining. And one can praise producer Chan for having assembled a pair of consistently rewarding programs that provide appealing music for a wide range of audience tastes, while still remaining true to the essential identity of the Playboy Jazz Festival.
Here’s the daily line-up:
Saturday, June 15, 3 p.m. – 11. p.m.
George Duke with special guest Jeffrey Osborne
Naturally 7 with special guest Herbie Hancock
Angelique Kidjo with special guest Hugh Masekela
Ole Coltrane featuring Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band with special guest James Carter
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band with special guest Lee Ritenour
Robert Glasper Experiment
Grace Kelly Quintet with special guest Phil Woods
Pedrito Martinez Group featuring Ariacne Trujillo
The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble directed by Jason Goldman
Sunday, June 16, 3 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Bob James/David Sanborn featuring Steve Gadd and James Genus
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra celebrates Quiney Jones 80th birthday with special guests Patti Austin and Hubert Laws
Taj Mahal with the Real Thing Tuba Band
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
The Brubeck Brothers Quartet: A Dave Brubeck Tribute
Elew and Jazz Antiqua Dance Ensemble, Pat Taylor Artistic Director: A World Premiere Collaboration
The LAUSD Beyond the Bell Jazz Band directed by Tony White and J.B. Dyas.
Group photo by Bonnie Perkinson. Other photos courtesy of the Playboy Jazz Festival
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Single day tickets for the Playboy Jazz Festival are available through Ticketmaster starting February 28. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878.