Live Jazz: The Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl (Further Thoughts)

by Devon Wendell

Esperanza Spalding

It’s become harder and harder to discern whether what has been designated as a “Jazz Festival” is aimed at die hard jazz aficionados — studying each chord change and nuance — or those music lovers who just want to dance to more commercially infectious R&B grooves and have fun. This was certainly the case at the 32nd annual Playboy jazz festival held at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday June 12th and Sunday June 13th, which covered all those bases. Perhaps, as Esperanza Spalding put it during her performance on Sunday night, “Jazz Ain’t Nothing But Soul.” Here’s a look at the acts that impressed me the most in that sense, and why.

On Saturday, New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue got the festival’s early birds up and dancing with their blend of Meter’s-like funk, classic rock, and jazz. Shorty alternated between trombone and trumpet, and vocals. Tunes such as “You Got The Same Thing On,” “Hurricane Season” and Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” displayed loose horn arrangements and tightly funky accompaniment by bassist Troy Ballard, drummer Joey Peebles and percussionist Dwayne Williams in pure New Orleans fashion.

Though the set was exciting and pleased the crowd, at times Shorty would show off using overly-done, drawn-out circular breathing gimmicks, especially on a bizarre rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Over-indulgent pop/rock medley jams of The Guess Who’s “American Woman” and The Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started ” felt as if they were never going to end. Though Shorty is skillful as both a trombonist and trumpet player, it was his confident charisma and ability to get the crowd moving, rather than the music iteself, that made his set a true Festival highlight.

Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, a former Art Blakey Jazz Messengers’ sideman, has carved out an impressive legacy of his own over the last two decades. But it was the presence of his special guest, the legendary Les McCann, with his unique brand of R&B flavored jazz piano playing and singing, that was the true heart and soul of Jackson and McCann set.

Les McCann

McCann was in top form, shuffling the blues on his down and dirty “Let It Ride (The Train),” which featured his mellow yet soulful vocals and gospel-tinged piano playing. Jackson and company seemed intent on capturing McCann’s musical atmosphere with respect and taste, even on the familiar “Cold Duck Time” and “In The Sticks,” which had Jackson playing a lot like the way Stanley Turrentine andr Eddie Harris did in McCann’s original groups. David Gilmore’s bluesy, Kenny Burrell-like guitar playing complimented the music perfectly. Though McCann would have sounded more potent on an upright piano instead of the electric synthesizer he was playing, the performance of his classic hit from 1969 “Compared To What” was sung with enthusiasm and humor, making it one of the day’s greatest performances.

At first glance, the a cappella band Naturally 7 appeared to look like a cross between Boys 2 Men and another vocal band contestant on American Idol, but their brilliant ability to mimic musical instruments vocally sounded more real than any electric synthesizer. This was certainly the case on a cover of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in which Jamal Reed’s reproduction of Eric Clapton’s original guitar solo was so close that it was frightening, making this another standout performance.

Robert Randolph

On Sunday, the mood at the festival seemed much more subdued than Saturday’s. Robert Randolph And His Family Band added some thunder, fusing blues, gospel, and hard rock.  Randolph’s approach to the pedal-steel guitar was the antithesis of the typically laid back country style that the instrument is commonly known for.  In fact, he generally sounded more like a rock ‘n’ roll six-string shredder, using wah-wah and an array of effects to create a Jimi Hendrix-like sound.

The Family Band sounded a lot like The Staple Singers with Lenesha Randolph performing a wealth of the vocals. The band’s powerful reading of blues/gospel, slide guitar master Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 recording “If I Had My Way” was original and funky, taking the Hollywood Bowl to church, and was far more interesting than the group’s own, often generic, rock-sounding material.

The Bobby Hutcherson and Cedar Walton Quartet was the most historical jazz pairing of Sunday’s show. Though the set was a lot softer than Hutcherson’s usual aggressive vibes playing, Walton and Hutcherson played off each other with focus and dedication, backed tastefully by David Williams on bass, and Eddie Marshall on drums. Walton played a more subordinate role on the piano, leaving most of the solos to Hutcherson. The quartet’s version of Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful” was elegantly soulful, the most truly melodic performance of the entire evening. The long, meandering solos provided a most welcoming change of pace for the Festival by these two trailblazers of jazz.

The most exciting presence of the night , however, was the man named the “Golden Voice Of Africa.” Salif Keita and his incredible band took the Bowl stage with a whirlwind of percussion and African rhythms seductive enough to inspire the shyest wallflower to dance. Guitarists Mory Djessou Kante and Ousmane Kouyate brilliantly demonstrated the tightest grooves, delivering modern blues rock guitar leads that never strayed from the steady pulse of the percussively driven compositions. Harouna Samake’s use of the kamale k’goni (Young man’s harp) was stellar, and he even opted to play this African stringed instrument behind his back while on his knees. a la Jimi Hendrix. Keita’s rich and powerful voice felt as if it could have filled the entire bowl without a microphone.

Salif Keita and his band made it clear that everything goes back to the drum, and they had just about everyone up and dancing in a trance. No other artist performed with such sheer energy throughout the entire festival. And it was diverse acts such as this, along with the many other, different approaches to musical energy that made the 32nd annual Playboy Jazz festival such an impressive event — an event celebrating the soul and spirit at the core of all music for all people.

Photos by Tony Gieske


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