By Devon Wendell
It was a beautiful sunny day at the Beverly Hills Civic Center on Sunday for the 33rd annual Playboy Jazz Festival to present its first free community concert. Two very diverse and skilled performers were on the bill, and KJAZZ’s Brad Williams was the host.
The first act was award winning Israeli pianist Tamir Hendelman’s trio, with Ryan McGillicuddy on bass and Dean Koba on drums.
Opening with a version of the old standard, “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” the Hendelman trio band immediately displayed a sense of symmetry and concentration.
Tamir’s bop-influenced playing often sounded like two pianists at once, reminiscent of Art Tatum’s finest work. Koba demonstrated some powerfully bombastic Roy Haynes-esque drumming on this number, while McGilllicudy’s subtle bass lines rode perfectly atop, holding down the groove.
Where Hendelman lacked originality, he made up for it with attention to dynamics with delicacy, which was the case on Jobim’s classic “Passarim,” and a masterful jazz reading of Maurice Ravel’s “Tombeau De Couperin,” — which were the early highlights of the set. On these numbers, the band became as one with each member following each other’s every nuance. Koba’s brush work on “Passarim” was superb, and the way the trio made Ravel’s music swing was bold and daring.
These musical adventures were more captivating than Hendelman’s own compositions, which mostly consisted of ballads such as “Sycamore” and “Israeli Waltz,” with the latter, in its finest moments, feeling like Bill Evans’s early ballad work. But, though performed flawlessly, they demanded more energy than they got.
Ending the set, the Hendelman trio produced their most energetic and exciting performance, a version of Japanese jazz piano great Makoto Ozone’s “BQE”(Brooklyn Queens Expressway). Delivered with an up-tempo, hard-bop feeling groove, it had the freneticism and pace of the actual BQE when it’s overflowing with traffic. Hendelman flew across the keyboard effortlessly and showed the sort of playfulness he lacked on previous numbers. Koba’s imaginative and aggressive drumming really stood out on this tune. Ironically enough, “BQE” was similar to Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare.”
Unfortunately, as is often the case with abbreviated jazz performances at festivals, once the Hendelman Trio finally began to swing the hardest, it was time for them to stop.
The leader of the next group on the program, Justo Almario, is known as one of the greatest and most respected reedmen in jazz, and his fiery set was further proof of his brilliance.
Almario took the Beverly Hills stage with his Afro-Colombian Ensemble — Jason Garcia: piano, Guillermo Guzman: bass, Aaron Serfaty: drum set, Eduardo Martinez: tambora, alegre, Alberto Lopez: congas, Nando Perez: vocals and tambora) — with a sense of power and fun.
Almario’s knowledge of the Cumbia style of Colombian music from Colombia’s coastal region was evident on the opening number “La Piragua,” which began with a flood of percussion. Almario approached the microphone with his tenor sax and began playing minor key arpeggios with a command and soul that was overwhelming. His tone was close to Atlantic records era Coltrane, and his seemingly ceaseless imagination even overpowered the thunderous tambora playing of Martinez as well as Lopez’s congas.
Due to some audio problems, Perez’s vocals and Garcia’s piano playing were almost inaudible at first, which seemed to make Nando Perez’s presence seem self conscious – all of which changed as the performers charged ahead. Even with some sound mishaps, though, nothing could distract from Almario’s virtuosity.
On “Te Olvide” and “El Guayabo,” Almario’s sax lines danced soulfully around the percussionists and Guzzman’s slapped bass accents. As Almario took flight into each solo, he maintained complete thematic sense in his lines, and interacted with each band member in a manner that was awe-inspiring. Almario and Guzzman started the next number, “Al Fin Te Vi” without the band. Almario switched to clarinet, and Guzzman’s bass work and the percussionists perfectly layered Almario’s clarinet playing. This was easily one of the set’s highlights. Almario’s sense of swing and technique on clarinet even had his fellow band member grinning in amazement.
On “La Casa En El Aire,” the performance was interrupted by more loud audio feedback, especially during Almario’s clarinet solo and Garcia’s piano playing. But neither musician would allow this to distract them him. In fact, it seemed as though they took the annoying hum as a challenge. Garcia produced his finest piano playing of the evening and Almario played far into the stratosphere, sounding more brilliant with every passing bar and chord change.
By this time, the Almario performance had officially become a party. As the band played “Fiesta De Negritios,” audience members began to dance through the aisles. Martinez’s and Lopez’s conga, tambora, and guache playing made it almost impossible not to get up and shake something. Lopez’s infectious vocals accented every hook and his joyful stage presence added to the joyful mood. Almario’s flute playing was as brilliant as everything he did on clarinet and sax.
When the band reached its final piece, “Tres Clarinetes.” Nando Lopez jumped off stage and joined the conga line taking place in the crowd. Serfaty soloed on drums but never departed from the multi-layered rhythms. Almario played the tenor sax while watching this spectacle. And it felt as though he’d been spurred on to play with even more intensity and glee — which was hard to believe possible. No one on or off stage wanted the music and dancing to end, but unfortunately it had to.
There was no doubt, however, that the delighted audience left happily, that the Playboy Jazz Festival had kicked off the 2011 Free Community concerts with an impressive afternoon of great music, swinging soul and high energy fun. And the price was perfect.
Justo Almario photograph by Tony Gieske.