By Michael Katz
The Playboy Jazz Festival rolls over you like the surf at high tide, albeit a rather long one, nine hours worth of relentless music, the revolving stage feeding one act after another. Aside from the minimal patter of host Bill Cosby, the audience has no chance for contemplation or reflection, or even to chatter among themselves, without talking over the music. Whether the audience shapes the music or vice versa is a moot point, by now. It’s become one big American Bandstand, the common denominator, as the apocryphal teenager would put it, being something “with a good beat and you can dance to it.” If you’re a jazz purist you are like the vagabonds roaming the beach with metal detectors, looking for something valuable that’s washed ashore. Sunday’s concert thankfully had more than a few nuggets, the inevitable disappointments and plenty to dance to.
Bill Cosby’s annual Cos of Good Music had a definite East Coast tilt. With the exception of drummer Ndugu Chancler, most of the band was unfamiliar to us Left Coasters, but that hardly diminished their excellence. Most notable was trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. I’d heard her before with Maria Schnieder’s large ensemble, but she shined in this smaller group, consistently presenting bright solos that cut through the heavily amped rhythm section. Jay Hoggard also excelled on the vibes, as well as Mark Gross on tenor and DD Jackson on piano, particular on some compositions by Don Braden and the late Don Pullen, both veterans of the mid-seventies Mingus ensembles.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band was the only pure blues entrée on Sunday’s menu. Steeped in the Robert Johnson tradition, they presented a soulful and energetic set. Leader Robert Randolph, seated at the pedal steel guitar gave a rousing performance, backed by his cousins Marcus Randolph on drums and Danyel Morgan on bass. It’s one of the vagaries of the Playboy Festival that some of the acts most suited to a late night performance end up under the hot sun of mid-afternoon, but the Randolph band held up fine under a cool bottle of sparkling wine.
Esperanza Spalding was back for her second consecutive year, giving an easy-going if unremarkable mid-afternoon performance. Spalding has a soft, lilting voice that works well supplementing her bass playing. When she relies on it as much as she did Sunday, it takes some edge off the overall performance. While pleasant to listen to, her lyrics tend to be forgettable, and the whole effect was somewhat less than you would hope for from one of the bright young talents in jazz.
One of the unexpected pleasures of the day was Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Mayfield’s group captured the flavor of New Orleans without relying on the usual standards, featuring original compositions dedicated to Katrina and the current oil spill (“Someone Forgot To Turn The Faucet Off”). Raymond Moore did some terrific work doubling on clarinet and soprano sax, and leader Mayfield played a crisp, ringing trumpet. Some of the nicest moments were from vocalist Johnaye Kendrick. In a festival almost devoid of ballads, she caught the Bowl’s attention, her voice clear and expressive.
By now the afternoon sun was sliding behind the hills, the Bowl had cooled off and the stage rotated to reveal two of jazz’s greats, vibist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist/composer Cedar Walton, along with David Williams on bass and Eddie Marshall on drums.
To truly enjoy this group you had to forget the noisy surroundings and not blame the audience for choosing this moment to break out the dinner baskets. The subdued harmonics of piano and vibes aren’t going to cause a stir at this festival; the artists seemed to know it, not speaking at all to the audience, though Hutcherson seemed in a joyful mood. When they fell into the opening bars of Walton’s standard “Bolivia,” few in the crowd seemed to pick up on it, but it was a light swinging version that turned cool as the weather did the same. They followed with a lovely version of Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful.” All in all a tasty set, one that made you wish these guys would come back on one of the Bowl’s mid-summer jazz nights, when they would have a better chance of holding the audience’s attention.
Salif Keita, a Malian singer, and his percussive ensemble came on next and tore up the place, their African rhythms exactly what the crowd had been waiting for. Clad in orange and white, their combination of congas, drums and calebasse, along with lilting Malian lyrics and some terrific guitar work by Mory Djessou Kante and Ousmane Kouyate had the audience dancing in the aisles and waving hankies.
The Manhattan Transfer had the unenviable task of following Keita’s group, and they struggled to find their footing. Their cool, restrained version of Chick Corea’s “Spain” is a nice contrast to other versions, most notable Corea’s own and Bobby McFerrin’s, but following Keita it seemed to fall a little flat. They recovered nicely, most notably with a swinging version of “A Tisket A Tasket” and then did three more selections from their new album, The Chick Corea Songbook. The performance, like the album, has its peaks and valleys. A couple of the songs, “The One-Step” from a lesser heard album of Chick’s called Friends, and “Times Lie” are personal favorites of mine, though these versions, while well-crafted, don’t necessarily beat the originals. And Stan Getz’ extended version of “Times Lie” on his Captain Marvel album, with Chick on piano, is a classic. It took a rousing rendition of “Birdland” to really involve the audience, bringing back memories of their 1992 Bowl performance with Weather Report. They closed with Corea’s “Free Samba,” which of all Chick’s songs, lends itself best to the Transfer’s stylings (they do two versions of it on the CD) and it was a spirited end to their set.
George Benson followed, and it was clear from the start that the audience was anticipating his performance. A personal note: one night in the mid-seventies, when Benson was building a reputation as a jazz guitarist with a string of CTI recordings, I caught his quartet at a small club in Madison, Wisconsin called the Good Karma. He had with him a young protégé, Earl Klugh, and the quartet put on a wonderful show. Flash forward to last night, when Klugh joined him for a guest number, the two of them trading riffs in a high-energy number, backed by the full r&b percussion section. Well, you can’t say that George Benson made a bad career choice, going from the basement of a health food restaurant in Mad City to being the headline act at the Playboy Jazz Festival. The audience regarded the duet with Klugh as something of an afterthought. It was a nice piece of nostalgia for me…and if you want more jazz guitar duets, there is always Guitar Night with John Pisano every Tuesday night at Vitellos.
The Cuban group (by way of Miami) Tiempo Libre closed the show. A good portion of the Bowl crowd was making for the exits by now, which was too bad, because if there was ever a group made for dancing in the aisles, this was it. Led by Joaquin Diaz on vocal and featuring what they called Timba Music, they sparkled with everything from Cuban Versions of classical standards to a rousing version of “Guantanamera.” Those who stuck around had lots of aisles to dance in, and left the Playboy Jazz Festival with happy feet, hips, arms and everything in between.
Photos by Tony Gieske.