By Don Heckman
The 32nd Playboy Jazz Festival wrapped a long weekend of music yesterday with yet another program perfectly illustrating the qualities that make it one of the world’s most engaging celebrations: tradition, youth, stylistic range and global diversity. Bill Cosby, the Festival’s irrepressible master of ceremonies and the leader of his own Cos of Good Music, got it exactly right in a conversation we had the week before the Festival.
“It’s in the name,” he explained. “It says ‘Playboy Jazz Festival’ with this realization that jazz has this tremendous umbrella that keeps broadening, it keeps getting wider. And to me, that says everything.”
To properly view the breadth of that umbrella, iRoM dispatched several of its prime reviewers – Tony Gieske, Devon Wendell and Mike Katz – to cover the Festival’s two long, entertaining days. We’ll be adding their comments over the next day or so. From an overall perspective there was a lot to write about.
Saturday’s program, for example, began with a superlative set by the gifted young players of the El Dorado High School jazz band. Youth was well served, as was tradition, via the convincing grasp of the memorable aspects of big band jazz.
Jake Shimabukuro added a different slant on youth, Alone on the vast Bowl stage with his ukulele, engagingly interacting with the enthusiastic crowd, he produced an extraordinary collection of music. Beatles songs, jazz riffs, percussive stomps, rock guitar wails were all extracted, mysteriously, from his seemingly unlikely instrument.
Tradition was there aplenty, as well. The Marcus Miller Band combined with a powerful dose of youth via the presence of alto saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Christian Scott – two players on the way to superlative careers. Singer Kurt Elling and the gripping tenor saxophone work of Ernie Watts recalled the memorable ‘60s Great American songbook encounter by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane.
Spreading Cosby’s “umbrella,” Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue took off on a fast-fingered, improvisational excursion combining wild virtuosity with blues roots. And Javon Jackson and Les McCann added a further view of the blues (and beyond) in an ever-swinging, cross-generational encounter.
But the most unusual group demanding (and getting) a place beneath that umbrella was the extraordinary vocal ensemble, Naturally 7. Using nothing more than their voices and their free-flying imaginations, the group’s seven members created an astonishing collage of instrumental-like textures combined with surging, propulsive, human body beat-box percussion.
The Clayton-Hamilton Big Band, sparked by co-leader and bassist John Clayton’s dynamic presence, offered a stunning display of big band jazz as a timeless musical entity.
And Chick Corea’s Freedom Band – including the stellar line-up of alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes – roved from the occasional far-out forays of Garrett and Corea to some surprisingly traditional passages with every note driven by the imaginatively rhythmic work of the octagenarian Haynes.
The Festival couldn’t have made a better choice for the let’s-get-the-crowd-on-their-feet segment of the evening than Pete Escovedo, delivering highly spiced Latin sounds along with his talented offspring, Sheila E., Peter Michael Escovedo and Juan Escovedo. The tradition of jazz-as-dance (and vice versa) was in full blossom as the Bowl’s aisles overflowed with happy rhythmic celebrants.
Wrapping the Festival’s first day, Sax For Stax added yet another aspect of the music’s stylistic range — jazz as pop instrumental music. With the saxophones of Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum in the hard-driving showcase spotlight, it remained for the solid playing of keyboardist Jeff Lorber to keep the music directly linked to its straight ahead roots.
Photos of Jake Shimabukuro and Pete Escovedo courtesy of Playboy Jazz Festival. All other photos by Tony Gieske.