By Don Heckman
The line-up for this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival was announced yesterday at the Playboy Mansion, with Hugh Hefner, Bill Cosby, producer Darlene Chan and a full crowd of media in attendance. Two significant aspects of the 32nd annual event – which takes place June 12 and 13 at the Hollywood Bowl — immediately became apparent. Both represent good news for Southland jazz fans.
The first is the fact that more than half of the artists on the bill are making their Playboy Jazz Festival debuts.
Nine acts – Grammy winning singer Kurt Elling, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson (performing with Les McCann), the innovative a cappella group Naturally 7, jazz ukulele magician Jake Shimabukuro, Trombone Shorty, African superstar Salif Keita, Irving Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, the Cuban timba band Tiempo Libre and the Jazz Mafia – have never before performed at Playboy. Two acts — the Sax for Stax contemporary jazz ensemble (with saxophonists Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum with keyboardist Jeff Lorber), as well as the veteran duo of vibist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Cedar Walton – are making their first appearances together at the Festival.
The second significant aspect is the presence of a generous sampling of young, up and coming talent.
Trumpeter Christian Scott, who performs with the versatile bassist/bass clarinetist/producer Marcus Miller, is one of the most highly regarded young trumpeters in the post-Wynton Marsalis generation.
The a capella vocal group Naturally 7 has started with the Take 6 model, and expanded it into a startling array of vocally-produced instrumental-like sounds. The amazing timbres they create have to be seen and heard to be believed.
Jake Shimabukuro’s playing transforms the seemingly limited four-string ukulele into a brilliantly expressive instrument. In his hands, it roves freely across jazz, bluegrass, funk, classical and rock. His performance will be the first by a solo ukulele player at the Festival.
Trombone Shorty – Troy Andrews – is a trombone and trumpet playing son of New Orleans who uses his charismatic stage presence as an essential ingredient in a style that finds expressiveness in every area of the jazz, blues, rock and hip hop spectrum.
Bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, a hit at last year’s Festival, returns with her constantly engaging mix of propulsive bass playing and soaring vocals.
The genre-defying, Bay area musical collective, The Jazz Mafia, will perform their hip-hop work, Brass, Bows and Beats.
And, as usual, there will be performances from the youngest of up and coming talents, a pair of jazz bands from L.A. educational institutions – the L.A. District High School Jazz Band and the El Dorado High School Band.
That said, the Festival also offers an impressive menu of jazz headliners. On Saturday’s bill, the stellar Chick Corea Freedom Band includes Roy Haynes, Christian McBride and Kenny Garrett. Kurt Elling will no doubt include some selections from his Grammy-winning CD tribute to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. The great Cuban band Los Van Van, led by bassist Juan Formell, will surely have the crowd dancing with their rhythmically irresistible Songo music. And the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra will offer a tribute to the late, great jazz drummer Louie Bellson.
On Sunday, George Benson makes his sixth Playboy Jazz Festival appearance, mixing his remarkable guitar playing with one of the most uniquely memorable male jazz vocal styles. The Manhattan Transfer – as good as jazz vocal ensemble singing has ever gotten – will do a program peppered with their numerous memorable hit performances. The wizardry of pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, combined with the gospel-driven energy of his Family Band should generate some of the Festival’s legendary dance lines.
And no Playboy Jazz Festival would be complete without the latest installment of Master of Ceremonies Bill Cosby’s “Cos of Good Music,” this year featuring Dwayne Burno, Ndugu Chancler, Mark Gross, Jay Hoggard, D.D. Jackson and Ingrid Jenson.
All in all, an impressive line-up, especially spiced by the presence of the younger players, enhanced by the dynamic enthusiasm of the first-timers, and illuminated by the star power that is always present in this entertaining, non-stop, two day jazz party.
Tickets for the Playboy Jazz Festival are available through Ticketmaster. Online at Ticketmaster. By phone at (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878.