By Don Heckman
The Hollywood Bowl was packed on Saturday and Sunday, as it is every June when the Playboy Jazz Festival sets up camp in the venerable amphitheater on the side of a hill. Eighteen thousand jazz fans showed up on Saturday, only a tiny bit less on Sunday, their enthusiasm undistracted by the fact that the Lakers were playing for – and winning — the NBA championship late Sunday afternoon.
Why do they keep coming back, year after year? It would be easy to say that it is because the Festival is no longer limited to jazz, that – with the passing of headliners such as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and dozens of other icons – it’s become more of a “Music” than a “Jazz” festival. But that’s a short-sighted view, one that ignores both the subtleties and the successes of the gradual evolution of producer Darlene Chan’s programming.
What flowed from the broad Bowl stage over the Festival’s two days was, in fact, an all-encompassing view of jazz in its many manifestations. Far from turning away from jazz, the schedule offered a banquet of delectable musical dishes, each of which – however different the ingredients – was rooted in the fundamental elements of the improvisational art. Let’s take a look at the courses on that menu, beginning with The Kids, Rising Stars and The Mainstream, proceeding through Big Bands, Vocal Jazz and Cutting Edge, and winding up with Latin Jazz, Blues & Roots, Smooth Jazz/Pop Jazz and World Jazz.
Start with The Kids. Jazz has become a startlingly widespread curriculum item in high schools and colleges across the country. And its capacity to turn on young players was vividly present in the opening act performances of the talented youngsters from the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts Jazz Band under the direction of Jason Goldman (on Saturday) and the North Hollywood High School Jazz Ensemble directed by Jonathan Kenion (on Sunday). Each of their sets offered an optimistic view of the jazz future.
An even more optimistic view permeated the stage with the arrival of the Festival’s Rising Stars: Anat Cohen, Esperanza Spalding and Alfredo Rodriguez. Clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Cohen performed with Bill Cosby’s Cos of Good Music ensemble on Saturday and led her own quartet on Sunday. Her mastery of the clarinet is already well known; playing with a stunning combination of passion, charisma and musicality, finding rhythmic drive in the interplay of sounds and silence, she is doing a convincing job of returning the instrument to the creative jazz center. But her tenor playing was equally compelling, and filled with humor when she did a honking, bar-walking style solo with Cosby’s spirited, all-star ensemble. Spalding, whose career is on a rapidly rising arc, accomplished the difficult task of playing bass and singing simultaneously. But her extraordinary skills were too often used at the service of less than intriguing material. Spalding has all the right elements; now she needs to apply them to material that best showcases her talents, in a way that engages her listeners.
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, discovered by Quincy Jones, is an astonishing talent. At 23, he revealed the same sort of technical virtuosity that has been present in other jazz pianists trained within the arts structures of socialist societies. But what he has done with that technique is uniquely his own. Performing a set of mostly original material, he called up images of a youthful Art Tatum, leavened with an off-center, Thelonious Monk point of view, spiced with the surging rhythmic passions of his homeland. Rodriguez’s version of “Body and Soul” can only be described as memorable – a brilliant rediscovery of a piece that seemed, long ago, to have given up all its riches.
The Jazz Mainstream was well represented in a quartet of groups showcasing the variety of music present in ensembles that remain within the tradition. The Cos of Good Music, already mentioned above, entertainingly fulfilled Bill Cosby’s love of hard swinging, straight ahead playing, energized especially by Cohen, trumpeter Tanya Darby and pianist Geoff Keezer. Jon Faddis, always keeping the bebop flame alive with his Dizzy Gillespie-inspired trumpet, also tossed in some idiosyncratic rapping, noting “Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky, ain’t got nuthin’ on what we do with ‘Cherokee’,” before launching into a high speed romp through the old Ray Noble classic.
Jimmy Cobb’s So What band revived the utterly timeless music of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album – celebrating its 50th anniversary in sync with the golden anniversary of the Playboy Jazz Festival. Memorable music, it was most effective when trumpeter Wallace Roney and tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson called up the sounds and the intensity that Davis and John Coltrane brought to an LP that became the biggest selling jazz LP of all time. Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander, leading a group he called “Jazz & Roots,” did indeed get down to basics, enlivening them with a healthy dose of reggae on Bob Marley’s “no Woman No Cry.”
Hugh Hefner has often mentioned his love of the Big Band Swing Era. A pair of large ensembles didn’t exactly call up the music of the ‘30s, but they did affirm the continuing vitality of the instrumentation that has essentially been the American symphony orchestra of the 20th, and now the 21st, centuries. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon, leading his own orchestra, set aside his inimitable wit and whimsy in favor of some impressive vocalizing on standards such as “Here’s That Rainy Day,” backed by a group of L.A.’s finest players. Although no credits were announced on the charts, most of the writing – a saxophone section soli in “Caravan was a good example – was as swinging as it was well-crafted. The Dave Holland Big Band, mostly working with pieces by its bass-playing leader, featured some world class soloists – saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks – in Holland’s often quirky, usually dissonant lines.
Vocal Jazz was in relatively short supply this year. There was Sheldon, of course, along with a brief number from Monty Alexander, and Esperanza Spalding’s r & b tinged numbers. But the presence of Patti Austin promised some state of the art jazz singing. It’s unlikely that Austin could ever emit a note that wasn’t state of the art, but this time out she stylistically devoted most of her set to such crossover items as “Come To Me” and “Give Me the Night,” backed by a quartet of singers and a soul-styled back-up band. And as she did so, she reminded us of the way in which jazz, and jazz musicians, have sneakily impacted so many areas of pop. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings did the same, especially in a number in which she convincingly worked her way through such memorable dance steps as the Boogaloo, the Pony, the Jerk and the Mashed Potato. Watching her in action, exorcising the crowd like a female James Brown, I couldn’t help but recall a quote by Brown, in which he said, “At heart, I’ve always been a jazz man.”
The Cutting Edge at the year’s Playboy Festival was dominated by the Wayne Shorter Quartet. With Geoff Keezer replacing the pianist Danilo Perez, who was disabled by an Achilles tendon injury, the group’s emphasis shifted into orchestral-like timbres, with Shorter’s epigrammatic soloing maneuvering in and around a fury of dense chording and surging rhythms from Keezer, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. As he often does, Shorter offered lengthy explorations of some of his familiar items, winding up with the oft-played “Footprints.”
Latin Jazz, in two of its fundamental forms, was provided by veteran percussionist Pete Escovedo’s Orchestra, in an amiable, dynamic display of family rhythms featuring Peter Michael Escovedo, Juan Escovedo and the drumming pyrotechnics of the dynamic Sheila E, Oscar Hernandez & the L.A. Salsa All Stars added a taste of the Afro-Cuban rhythm and song that have coursed through jazz since the ‘40s. Blues and Roots book-ended the Saturday show with an opening set by the always effervescent New Birth Brass Band and a closing set featuring the Bayou timbres of the Neville Brothers Between them, the two groups underscored the still-vital impact that New Orleans has had upon jazz – then and now. World Jazz doesn’t exactly describe the high spirited music and dance of King Sunny Ade and his African Beats, but the Nigerian group’s presentation was an ineffably entertaining reminder of one of jazz’s deepest musical wellsprings.
Smooth Jazz/Pop Jazz may have its detractors among so-called “serious” jazz fans, but there’s no arguing with the fact that many of saxophonist Kenny G’s most devoted listeners actually find their way through him into more creatively layered forms of jazz. Like the dance bands of the Swing Era, Kenny G, who was Sunday’s penultimate act, has found a workable entertainment style built upon jazz roots. Now using circular breathing as an effective, crowd-pleasing gimmick, he introduced his boyish charm and busy-fingered soprano saxophone to his audience by walking through the crowd down to the stage. Norman Brown’s Summer Storm, featuring the warm-toned vocals of Phil Perry, offered yet another example of the way in which jazz rhythms have been transformed into a genre that blends elements of jazz with the predictabilities of pop.
So what was missing from this multi-coursed cornucopia of music? Not much. It would have been nice to have a little more in the way of mainstream jazz vocalizing – especially at a time when there are so many fine young singers on the scene. The Cutting Edge could have used a view or two beyond that of Wayne Shorter. And a solid blues artist – B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Etta James – would have immediately established the unbreakable link between jazz and the blues. But these are minor carps for a Festival that surveyed so much of what jazz has offered and continues to offer, so much of where it has come from and where it’s going. To do all that in an entertaining fashion, while presenting it in a pleasant outdoor setting, doesn’t leave much to be desired.
Photos of Anat Cohen, Wallace Roney and Sheila E. by Tony Gieske. Photo of Alfredo Rodriguez provided by Playboy.