By Devon Wendell
The 31st annual Playboy Jazz Festival kicked off its 2009 festivities Sunday afternoon with a free outdoor concert at The Beverly Hills Civic center. The program was an entertaining study in jazz diversity.
Opening the performance — Bonesoir, led by veteran trombonist Maurice Spears. Some may think it’s impossible to utilize five trombonists successfully in a single ensemble. But Spears brought it off with a brilliant sense of harmony, space, and texture. His associates included trombonists George Bohanon, Ira Nepus, Garrett Smith, and Jason Thor. The rhythm section consisted of Louis Spears on bass, Andy Langham on Piano, and David Birge on drums.
Bonesoir’s set was mostly devoted to covers, opening with a jaunty version of J.J. Johnson’s classic “Why Not?” There was also a loving tribute to the recently deceased Freddie Hubbard with the trumpeter’s familiar theme, “Little Sunflower.” And on “Bakery Blues,” the band took off into hard bop territory, immediately recalling the early ’60s funk and soul-tinged bop of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers
The trombonists interacted with each other superbly — in tasteful, complimentary fashion during the solos, with smooth ensemble efficiency during for the slickly crafted arrangements. Bohanan was the star of the set, however, especially with his own composition, an Ellington/Mingus-esque ballad, Linda. During his outstanding soloing on Victor Young’s classic ballad, My Foolish Heart. the other bone players laid out, listening closely, allowing Bohanan to display his wonderfully sensitive phrasing and delicate tone. Langham’s fluid piano work, with its Bill Evans qualities, blended perfectly.
After Bonesoir’s engaging sound and mood had started the Festival with a strong bow in the direction of straight ahead tradition, the music dramatically switched gears with the arrival of salsa/Latin Jazz maestro and multi-Instrumentalist Johnny Polanco and his Conjunto Amistad (with Mike Parlett on alto sax, Mike Mays on tenor, Anthony Gill on baritone, Tony Bonsera and Ivan Trujillo on trumpets, Steve Johnson on trombone, Artie Webb on flute, Albeniz Quintana on piano, Manny Silvera on bass, Fabio Mirand on vocals and Robert Escota and Christian Muraga on percussion).
Their set was a tribute to Tito Puente via a program completely devoted to the music of the Latin jazz great. First up — “Llegue” and “Mambo Inn,” in which Polanco alternated between trombone and pulsating guiros with soulful layers of percussion and particularly fine flute work by Webb. Mirand’s energetic vocals and charismatic manner provided the perfect vehicle for these up-tempo classics. And Oye Como Va (probably Puente’s most well known composition) gave each band member equal swing time. On the tender “Picadillo,” Polanco informed the audience of Tito Puente’s underrated skills on the vibes and then modestly spotlighted his own subtle brilliance on the instrument.
Polanco and company closed the show with the infectious “Kan, Kan, Kan,” with the crowd roaring with delight and gratitude for a day of fun, music, great weather, and the perfect price of admission. The 2009 Playboy Jazz Festival had arrived with two unique acts paying loving tributes to some of the architects who have left us with a lifetime of musical inspiration.