By Devon Wendell
On Sunday afternoon and evening, the 2009 Playboy Jazz Festival held its third community concert, free to the public, at Warner Central Park in Woodland Hills. And the festivities began early with a short, but diverse set from the talented young jazz players of the El Camino High School Jazz Band. Among the high points – Chuck Mangione’s “Between Races,” Hank Levy’s “Chiapas” and a tribute to Thad Jones titled “Thaditude.”
Jazz violinist Susie Hansen took the stage next in celebration of the 20th anniversary of her Latin Jazz Band. And it only took a couple of numbers – “No Te Metas Conmigo” and “Suene La Clave” — to get the crowd off their blankets and beach chairs, up and dancing to the infectiously swinging salsa hooks and lavish horn arrangements by David Stout, the vocals by both George Balmeseda and Kaspar Abbo, and the almost telekinetically connected Latin percussion laid down by Papo Rodriguez, Victor Baez, and Tiki Pasillas.
Though the electric violin may not be considered a “typical” Salsa/Latin jazz instrument of choice, Hansen’s strong intonation and the unique and tastefully syncopated phrasing she brought to her melodies stayed true to the music’s rich heritage and history. Even in bold experiments like Bobby Darrin’s “Beyond The Sea” and a medley tribute to Frank Sinatra of “Fly Me To The Moon(Cha Cha),” ”The More I See You, ” ”It Had To be You”and ”All of Me,” Hansen never abandoned the music’s Latin jazz roots. Stellar trombone work by Stout, and Joe Rotondi Jr.’s understated yet complimentary piano stylings were perfect for these adventurous ballad choices.
Hansen and her band closed with a salsa take on the rock n’ roll classic “Vehicle” by The Ides Of March — easily the highlight of the band’s set — laying down an irresistible salsa funk beat, with Hansen and the horn section trading solos while keeping the groove intact.
Ed Shaughnessy, long recognized as a sterling big band drummer (especially with Doc Severinson’s band on The Tonight Show) showed up this time with a dynamic and seasoned quintet consisting of Tom Peterson (tenor), Ira Nepus (trombone), Jennifer Leitham (bass), and Rich Eames (piano). Playing a large, double bass drum kit, Shaughnessy dedicated his set to the man who pioneered the set up, the great and recently deceased Louis Bellson. Launching into a refreshingly original version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” done in ¾ time with a nod to Charlie Parker’s version of “Just Friends,” Shaughnessy proved from the first bombastic kick that his technique and his love for this music have not diminished with time.
Peterson’s “Rear View” showcased his Charlie Rouse-esque, bop-influenced tenor style. Eames and Nepus were very mainstream-traditional in Tom Rainier’s tender balled “Seaward.” But Leitham proved to be the standout member of the group with her Charlie Haden-wrestles-Paul Chambers aggressive bass playing. Leitham locked into Shaughnessy’s in the pocket swing on another Rainier tune, the funky “I’m Home, Honey,” focusing all eyes and ears on her boundless energy and unparalleled skills.
Shaughnessy and company wrapped the set with “Salt Peanuts,” in a version that was closer to Miles Davis’ 1956 rendition in its frenetic qualities than it was to Dizzy Gillespie’s familiar original. Shaughnessy’s enthusiasm for the music and his affection for lost comrade Bellson made his set a touching celebration of the music’s immortality.
Diane Schuur’s evening-closing performance had special significance because it reunited her with Shaughnessy, who — in Schuur’s words — was, “The cat who got me my first national exposure,” introducing her at the 1975 Monterey Jazz Festival and on “The Tonight Show.” “Deedles” (as she is known by friends and fans alike) and her band were joined by Shaughnessy, Peterson, Scott Steed (bass), and Richard Aimes playing piano on two numbers. The set consisted mostly of standards from her latest CD, “Some Other Time,” opening smoothly with Vernon Duke’s “Taking A Chance On Love.” In Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” Schuur captivated the audience with her vocal phrasing, her vibrato and her percussive, blues-tinged piano playing. Though chestnuts like “My Favorite Things,” “It’s Magic” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” have been thoroughly done in all genres of jazz, the warmth and familiarity or Schuur’s musical presence kept them fresh.
The focal point of her set was Leonard Bernstein’s melancholy ballad “Some Other Time,” as Shauhnessy played brushes and lovingly gazed over at her in awareness of the lyrical significance of this special moment. The band’s accompaniment, especially the deep foundation of bassist Steed, was subtle and respectful, giving Schuur space to stretch out on piano as well as her scat singing.
As the sun dipped below the trees, Schuur and the band closed the show with “Deedles’ Blues,” with Schuur scatting along with each band member as they soloed, keeping them all on their toes. Instead of scurrying to beat the traffic, the audience, reluctant to have the evening end, danced with delight in the cool summer night’s breeze as “Deedles’ Blues’ came to a climax with a double bass bang from Shaughnessy — the perfect conclusion to the third and final free concert series of the 31st annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Next up, the Festival itself, on Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl.