The 32nd annual Playboy Jazz festival ended this year’s free community concert series at Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills on Sunday 6th with a ceremony of soul, gospel, post-bop, and pop jazz hosted by KJAZZ’s LeRoy Downs.
Kicking off the show, the 25 piece Calabasas High School Jazz Band A under the watchful eye of conductor and instructor Joshua Barroll played its last gig before graduation. And they proved how well they’d done their homework with a diverse set of big band classics, opening with Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” featuring trombonist Cole Weatherson’s tasty solo around the melody line.
The nervous but focused band of teens also swung their way through Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Swamp,” the Moten Brother’s “Moten Swing” and an imaginative big band twist on Pat Metheny’s “It’s Just Talk,” showcasing strong solos by tenor saxophonist Max Gaspin, trumpeter Jason Schrieber and clarinetist Nick Latman. But it was the timeless guidance of Duke Ellington that could be felt in every selection — especially in the blend of the master’s own “Dukish”/”Rockin’ In Rhythm,” with strong, Duke-like economical piano playing by Michael Cusano.
Up next: veteran trumpet player Sal Marquez’s Quintet, featuring tenor saxophonist Chuck Manning, electric guitarist Rick Zunigar, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Steve Haas, was a good band that took a while to find its focus.
On Marquez’s rendition of Miles Davis’ “If I Were A Bell” (from Marquez’s tribute to Miles, One For Dewey), Marquez’s muted trumpet solo felt too close to Davis’ 1956 recording. And Manning, following along, dove right into blatant Traneisms without displaying his own musical identity.
Steve Haas and Rick Zunigar were the early standouts in this group, playing with unparalleled imagination and energy. On Joe Henderson’s “Punjab,” Haas’s original sense of rhythmic coloring and Zunnigar’s inspiring ability to play both tight rhythm and aggressive lead guitar simultaneously drew attention away from everything around them.
Unfortunately, Marquez and Manning didn’t get around to playing their best, meeting Haas and Zunigar’s energy level, until the two closing numbers, the highlight of the set. The first was a stark version of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’,” the second was Joe Henderson’s “Mojo” – a pair of tunes in which the entire band was starting to gel and feed off of each other. Marquez’s solo on “Mojo” was brilliant, simmering with Lee Morgan-like slurs and an impeccable sense of space and dynamics. But, sadly, when it was over, there was no more time left to stretch out any further.
After a short break, keyboardist Lao Tizer took the stage with his self-titled band Tizer. From the opening number “Uptown,” it was apparent that the group (keyboardist Lao Tizer, guitarist Jeff Kollman, bassist Andre Manga, drummer Raul Pineda and Steve Nieves on saxophone, percussion, and vocals) would be quick to fall back on overdone rock and smooth jazz clichés.
“Fire and Ice” had a Latin rock fusion feel that started off strong, driven by Pineda’s bombastic drumming. But it soon fell into overindulgence. Kollman’s guitar solo sounded like another jazz rocker going for that Santana sound. Tizor alternated between synthetic Fender Rhodes and clavinet keyboard presets ala Herbie Hancock. Though melodic and funky at times, his playing gave the impression that it was being held down by the stale compositions. The rhythm team of Manga and Pineda with Nieves adding tasteful percussion, seemed as though they were waiting for something to inspire them. And Nieves’s soprano sax work gave the music a Kenny G, feel, especially on “Diversity,” in which he added some schmaltzy upper register, pop-jazz scat singing.
The band ended its thankfully short set with “What It Is,” featuring special guest Jeff “Big Red” Marshall on guitar. Feeling at first like Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way,” era fusion, it quickly moved into the marketable realms of light jazz. Manga’s slap bass and the wailing guitar solos from Kollman and Marshall felt forced and lacked focus. Which, unfortunately, summed up Tizer’s whole set – a set in which these talented musicians seemed to play with constraint instead of inspiration.
Headlining the show, Oleta Adams took the stage with grace, elegance, and confidence. Backed by her slick and soulful band, consisting of guitarist Harrah, bassist John Peña and drummer John Cushon, Adams sat at the grand piano and began with “Feelin’ Good” (from her latest CD, Let’s Stay Here). The tune immediately established Adams’s one-of-a-kind, thick vibrato and her aggressive, gospel-tinged piano playing.
The dichotomy between her often mournful vocals and her songs of joy, hope, romance and survival proved to be a powerful mix on numbers such as “I Hope You Dance,” “Picture You The Way I Do,” and “Rhythm Of Life,” Too often, however, the band was also subtle and funky in the same way, sticking to a set theme and mood for each song. And the pre-recorded backing vocals were both distracting and unnecessary, especially so, given the power of her own vocal delivery.
Adam’s slow, sexy, no-nonsense reading of Billy Joel’s “New York State Of Mind” was the most powerful performance of the evening. It no doubt would have charmed the “Piano Man” and it surely left all the Big Apple deserters in the crowd feeling home sick. The hip churning r&b mood continued with “Let’s Stay Here,” dedicated to her drummer and husband John Cushon. The song combined romance and joy, and Adams’s interpretation fit the lyrics of the song — “sipping Mojitas and listening to Miles.” Her strength as a pianist equaled the power of her vocals. On “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” she sang of yearning and loneliness with sincerity and raw sensuality.
The show closed with a slower version of Adam’s first hit from 1990 — Brenda Russell’s “Get Here” — in which she started off singing solo with her piano as the band came in softly at just the right moment. Her encore was the up-tempo gospel number “Act of Forgiveness,” which was intended, she said,” to get the audience “up and dancing,” And it did – like a cool breeze after a hot day. Adams’ fusion of positive jazz and gospel-inspired soul was the perfect way to wrap up an event filled with joyful traditions, musical adventure, and fun.
Sal Marquez and Chuck Manning photo by Tony Gieske