By Don Heckman
The Playboy Jazz Festival returns to the Hollywood Bowl this weekend for the 33rd time with another celebration of America’s great musical art. And the Festival’s long, remarkable string of successes, over the course of more than three decades, is best described by Playboy’s founder, Hugh Hefner.
“I’ve had a lot of things to be proud of in my life,” says Hef. “But nothing more, quite frankly, than the Jazz Festival.”
Most people see the Festival from one or both of two perspectives: As a non-stop parade of world class jazz (and beyond) talent. And as a similarly continuous party in the Southern California outdoors, reaching from bright afternoon sunlight to cool night breezes. Combine the two, with the music, the wine coolers, the feasting and the occasional dancing in the aisles, and it’s no wonder why the Festival has been packing the Bowl for so many years.
It’s seems to me, however, that there are other aspects to the weekend that are also intriguing.
Some of those aspects are always present. Like, for example, the sociology of the Festival. What do I mean by that? Take a walk around the entire perimeter of the venue, from bottom to top and down again. And you’ll see a shifting array of listeners and activities: the up close garden boxes with their catered lunches and fine wines; the devoted jazz fan groups who purchase entire blocks of seats to be together; the folks in the garden chairs, coolers and umbrellas at the very top, viewing the proceedings mostly on the large video screens.
Other aspects are unique to the programming of each Festival. This year, for example, Sunday’s schedule includes the presence of no less than four extraordinary guitarists, whose styles embrace the full range of the instrument’s jazz identity.
Start with John Scofield, who’s performing in a duet format with Robben Ford halfway into Sunday’s program. Sco, as he’s called by friends and fans, has been a visible presence on the jazz scene since the ‘70s, performing with everyone from Charles Mingus and Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. But he’s also crossed over comfortably into genres. His website notes, correctly, that his “music generally falls somewhere between post-bop, funk-edged jazz and R & B.”
Robben Ford’s career also dates back to the ‘70s. And he’s been crossing boundaries comfortably ever since the beginning. His blues credentials were established early, backing blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon. From there he went to Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, backing both George Harrison and Joni Mitchell. After that, a stint with Miles Davis followed by his own numerous bands.
The great, veteran blues guitarist Buddy Guy is in the spotlight for the headliner position on Sunday night. Although his early career was largely spent in the shadows, backing the likes of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Junior Wells, he finally came into his own in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Since then, his uniquely personal blues style, which can at any time verge into soul music, rock and even a touch of avant-garde, has firmly established him as one of the great blues guitarists. To read a recent iRoM Q & A with Buddy Guy click HERE.
Stanley Jordan, performing in Harmony 3 with Ronnie Laws and Walter Beasley, is one of the guitar world’s most unusual artists. Using a two-handed tapping technique on the strings (rather than the plucking or strumming) he has the capability of playing the guitar with the melodic fluency and harmonic textures of a keyboard instrument. The results are extraordinary, enhanced by the compositional imagination Jordan brings to every solo he takes.
And it’s not just on Sunday that the Festival is showcasing jazz guitarists. On Saturday’s program, the group Fourplay is now featuring guitarist Chuck Loeb as a vital ingredient in their mix of jazz, pop and r & b elements. A veteran of Stan Getz’s band, Michael Brecker’s Steps Ahead and his own jazz fusion band, Metro, he has also been a busy studio musician, leading his own groups for a couple of decades before joining Fourplay.
That’s a lot of different views of the jazz guitar over a two day period. And it’s another example of the many engaging levels of interest present in the programming and the performances at this year’s — and every year’s — Playboy Jazz Festival.
For information about the Playboy Jazz Festival click HERE. Or call the information line: (310) 450-1173.