By Michael Katz
The first day of the Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday presented a panoply of talented musicians to blow away the persistent marine layer that had enveloped the Hollywood Bowl, providing a joyful party for all. At the same time it caused one to think about the relationship between musicianship and showmanship, and the role of jazz in jazz festivals these days.
As has been the case for many years now, if you are a jazz maven you had better get there on time, for the best acts tend to be early in the program, with the louder and more pop oriented groups closing out the show. Happily, the bowl was filled to near capacity not long after the 3 pm start, no doubt spurred by the appearance of trumpeter Ambrose Akimusire. The ascension of a young trumpet player is always a spotlight grabber. From Satchmo to Miles, Freddie Hubbard to Wynton Marsalis, the first trumpet chair has always symbolized jazz’s standard bearer.
Akimusire, in both tone and appearance, seemed to channel an inner Freddie, his sharp, piercing tones and gutsy solos reminding one of Hubbard’s late sixties work with Atlantic. His quintet featured the estimable Walter Smith III on tenor sax; the two of them traded the lead aggressively, abetted by some fine piano work by Sam Harris. If the set seemed more suited for a late night at Catalina’s than 3 PM on a cloudy afternoon, it still kept the attention of the crowd. The compositions were unannounced – Akimusire didn’t speak to the audience until the end of his set – and with the exception of a pretty, muted ballad towards the end, tended to be hard boppish. There were times when the performance seemed a collection of inspired solos in search of a theme, but it was certainly an impressive festival debut.
Bill Cosby, of course, has no problems communicating to an audience, either as festival MC or as nominal leader of his annual Cos of Good Music. This year’s version had A-list talent everywhere, with Ndugu Chancler and Babatunde Lea on drums and percussion, Dwayne Burno and Alphonso Johnson on string and electric bass.
But the real stars were the front line of Anat Cohen on clarinet/tenor sax and veteran George Bohanon on trombone, with Geri Allen sparkling on piano and keyboards. Bohanon, a longtime LA resident, has delighted audiences here for years, a steady presence in the area’s many large jazz ensembles. He rumbled delightfully throughout, from the spirited opener, through a lovely rendition of “Laura” and especially on Curtis Fuller’s “The Egyptian.”
But it was Anat Cohen and Geri Allen, in from New York, who electrified the crowd. Cohen started out on clarinet, though her initial aggressive, swinging solos were amplified almost to the point of distortion. The clarinet just doesn’t stand up to that kind of amplification, but she fared much better on Harold Arlen’s lovely “Last Night When We Were Young.” Her robust performance on tenor, especially on the Lieber/Stoller hit “Searchin’” was first rate.
Geri Allen was a force everywhere, supportive on “Laura,” dynamic on “Four on Six,” funky on “The Egyptian.” Cosby was visible throughout, sitting in on drums and cowbells. His ability to round up bands such as this one is an indispensable asset to the festival.
The HBO show Treme has brought many of New Orlean’s finest musicians to the national spotlight, most notably Trombone Shorty, who thrilled audiences here a year ago and absolutely tore up last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. At first, any group that lacked Shorty seemed to pale by comparison, but the Rebirth Brass Band built up fervor slowly and steadily; soon enough, umbrellas were sprouting up like mushrooms, with beads circulating through the crowd. From younger players like Donald Harrison Jr. on alto and vocals, and lead trumpeter Kermit Ruffin on trumpet and the veteran Dr. Michael White on clarinet, the Rebirth Brass Band was a perfect match for the eager-to-party Bowl crowd. There were traditional New Orleans standards like “St. James Infirmy,” which featured Dr. White, and material as diverse as Herbie Hancock’s funky “Chameleon,” which seemed to fit in perfectly with the band’s Big Easy stomp. And, of course, “When The Saints Go Marching In” closed out the set, to the crowd’s roaring, dancing, bead-jangling approval.
The non-stop musical pace of the festival, with bands changing on the revolving stage, can at times make for a difficult transition . It is challenging to follow the New Orleans fervor of Treme with no time for the audience to digest it or for the buzz to dissipate. The San Francisco Jazz Collective, which followed, is an eight man ensemble which chooses a different theme each year and interprets it through its distinctive members.
This year, the Collective is celebrating the music of Stevie Wonder. That isn’t unprecedented for jazz artists – Stanley Turrentine and Nneena Freelon come to mind, among others. The SF group’s material is a little more demanding, however, in that it spreads its arrangements among its members, diffusing the point of view. The soloists are certainly first rate: Vibist Stefon Harris was the leader, at least in terms of speaking to the crowd, and his rhythmic approach was a backbone of the show, with Edward Simon on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums.
The driving front line consisted of Greg Osby on alto, David Sanchez on tenor, Robin Eubanks on trombone and Avashai Cohen on trumpet. That’s a powerful group, and with the amplification it almost sounded orchestral at times. They went through classic Wonder material, presented with raucous funk on “Do I Do” and “Visions.” Simon’s arrangement of “My Cherie Amour” seemed a little cluttered to me. It’s at heart cheerfully romantic, probably Wonder’s most covered song, and doesn’t really stand up to anything that tinkers with the mood. “Superstition” featured dynamic work by Stefon Harris and was a great vehicle to get the crowd going, with Cohen doing some outstanding work on trumpet and Osby, Sanchez and Eubanks all joining in to bring the set to a close.
There probably isn’t a better jazz vocalist to play at this festival than Dianne Reeves. It was her eighth time, not to mention many appearances at the Bowl’s LA Phil Jazz series, and she was in command from the start. When the stage rotated, her backup quartet was present, formally dressed, but jazz diva Reeves entered regally from stage left, dressed in an electric blue outfit. Her voice is alternately caressing or bluesy/funky. She moved easily from an Abbey Lincoln tribute to standards like “Stormy Weather.” Reeves kept up a friendly patter with the crowd, communicating in a conversational vocalese, keeping the pace brisk. She has her own standards, such as “Today Will Be A Great Day,” dedicated to her mother. Her stellar back up group included Peter Sprague with some wonderful guitar soloing, Reginald Veal on bass, Peter Martin on piano and Terreon Gully on drums. Reeves was well-rewarded by the audience, which brought her back with several standing ovations. Her last number, a pastiche of folk rhythms and jazz quotes, featured bits of “Summertime” – and by this time summer had actually made an appearance, with the late afternoon sun breaking through – and finished with a nod to “Afro Blue.”
From this point on, jazz started to give way to its various by-products, with mixed results. The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra is a great dance band and featured some outstanding soloists. Brian Lynch on trumpet is well known to LA audiences, but Conrad Herwig on trombone is less often seen here. He went on a rampage in the set’s latter portions, and had a great partner in Jimmy Bosch. Karen Joseph, a young flutist, had lots of room in the spotlight and took full advantage. Palmieri and his rhythm/percussion section blasted away throughout. The volume was up, though it was only a precursor of what was to come.
The penultimate act was the smooth jazz quartet FourPlay, with Chuck Loeb taking over from Larry Carleton on guitar. Bob James, Harvey Mason and Nathon East rounded out the group. They are all outstanding musicians – James, especially, is inimitably listenable — with memorable compositions like the theme from the TV show Taxi and “Nightcrawlers.” But the group pretty much lives up to its billing as a preeminent smooth jazz band. For more hard core jazz fans, their repertoire seems unchallenging and on the tame side.
Roots, the hip hop group that closed the show, could hardly be called tame. They romped on stage with the decibels amped up to eardrum-splitting levels. I suppose the inclusion of a tuba would make them tangentially related to jazz, and Terence Blanchard was billed as a guest artist, but like a good portion of the crowd, I preferred to preserve my hearing for another day and joined the early exodus to the Park and Ride buses, which were filling up and scooting off to their destinations long before the show ended.
While I understand the argument that these pop/crossover acts are needed to fill the Bowl, I would point out that, at least Saturday, the audience was larger for the outstanding slate of diverse performers that led off the program. It’s natural that the louder acts, especially the ones that get people up and dancing like Rebirth Brass and Palmieri, get the most raucous responses, yet the genuinely enthusiastic reaction to the earlier musicians, culminating in the repeated standing O’s for Dianne Reeves, showed that jazz in all its variations, well-presented by talented, Bowl-savvy performers, can still have wide appeal.
In the meantime, let’s give the Playboy Jazz Festival credit for bringing some great musicians to town, some of them exciting new voices, others veterans but infrequent visitors, and bringing them before a large and supportive crowd that wouldn’t see them otherwise. That’s undeniably good for music here in LA.
To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.
Photos of Akinmusire, Anat Cohen and George Bohannon, and Eddie Palmieri by Tony Gieske.