By Devon Wendell
It becomes more apparent each year that the annual Playboy Jazz Festival has less to do with pure jazz programming and more to do with people of all ages and races coming together for a good time. This was certainly the case this year during the Festival’s second day show on Sunday, in which the lineup include a high percentage of funk/jazz and blues acts.
Many jazz “purists” may balk at this but the crowd didn’t seem to mind at all. The crowd danced, drank, and did little fretting over the lack of flatted 5th chords being played. Even an artist as beloved in the jazz world as John Scofield chose to play a set of pure blues with fellow guitarist Robben Ford (who’s more known as a blues player), resulting in one of the many festival highlights.
Scofield and Ford were backed by Andy Hess on bass and Anastasio Panos on drums. Their brief set consisted of mostly well known blues classics such as Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Mornin’ Little School Girl,” and Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf’s standard “Spoonful,” with Ford on vocals. Oddly enough, Scofield’s guitar playing was much bluesier and tasteful in a traditional sense compared to that of Ford’s. Where Ford would fly across the fret board with lightning speed, sounding more like a mid ‘70’s Jeff Beck, Scofield played sweet and slow string bends with a more economic sense, bringing to mind the late great Albert King.
When the two ax men weren’t dueling solos, they were making some soulful and original guitar harmonies — as on their instrumental rendition on Ray Charles’s “Busted.” And it was especially refreshing to see Scofield set aside his jazzier chops and play some low-down blues, especially given the fact that many of his fans might thumb their noses at blues players.
Although the youthful vocal acappella group Naturally 7 offered a set list that didn’t differ much from that of their big Playboy Festival debut last year, their impact was equally strong and entertaining. Lead by Roger Thomas, Naturally 7’s ability to vocally mimic instruments from guitar, drums, bass and electric guitar to harmonica, trombone, and DJ scratches, while creating smooth and precise vocal harmonies, is astounding.
Warren Thomas’ vocal simulation of Eric Clapton’s guitar solo on their reading of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sounded better than many of the actual guitarists who performed during the festival. And Garfield Buckley’s ability to capture Sly Stone’s wah-wah drenched harmonica phrasing on Sly And The Family Stone’s “Sex Machine” was frightening in its accuracy. The group’s performance was further proof that Naturally 7 isn’t just relying on a limited gimmick, but is, instead, one of the most creative and innovative ensembles in the music world.
Another stellar moment in the festival was the arrival of former James Brown horn section players and arrangers Pee Wee Ellis (saxophone) and Fred Wesley (trombone). Together again, their new project was titled “Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute To James Brown.”
Unfortunately, the African vocalists — Vusi Mahlasela and Cheik Lo — were a distraction from the JB sound laid down at the opening number, Brown’s “I’ve Got That Feeling.” But even so, the magic between Ellis and Wesley made this a most special performance. Their funky horn hooks and the symmetry between the two men that helped change music forever sounded as fresh as it did 40 years ago. The only element that would have made this tribute a lot stronger would have been the inclusion of Maceo Parker, whose absence was especially felt on JB’s “Pass The Peas.”
The most electrifying set of the day, however, took place when headliner Buddy Guy took the Bowl stage accompanied by his dynamic and attentive touring band: Ric Hall, guitar, Orlando Wright, bass; Tim Austin, drums; and Marty Sammons, keyboards.
Guy arrived like Zeus, throwing lightening bolts into the audience via a furry of twisted string bends and wailing guitar runs, then suddenly turning the volume down and playing sweet and softly. His set consisted of blues classics like Muddy Water’s “Hoochie Coohie Man,” Freddie King’s “Love Her With A Feeling,” and Albert King’s version of O.V. Wright’s “Drowning On Dry Land.” Guy did his usual stage antics — playing the guitar with his shirt while strapped backwards, playing wild blistering solos into the audience, using Austin’s drum stick as a slide, accompanying it all with his witty and warm stage banter.
As amazing as Guy’s energy was, it was paralleled by a special guest — 12 year old Quinn Sullivan, whom Guy brought to center stage. The pre-teen’s playing sounded like a well rehearsed combination of Guy and Eric Clapton. Singing about his “Master Buddy Guy,” he even played a white Stratocaster like Guy’s. But Guy and the audience enjoyed every second of Sullivan’s enthusiastic playing and singing.
With the exception of dynamic sets by Geri Allen’s Timeline Band (featuring the amazing tap dancing of Maurice Chestnut), Terence Blanchard’s band, Bill Cunliffe with the stirring sounds of the Resonance Big Band (showcasing fast-fingered pianist Marian Petrescu), and Harmony 3 (with Ronnie Laws, Walter Beasley and Stanley Jordan ) – jazz took a back seat to the blues on the last day of the 33rd annual Playboy Jazz Festival.
In the long run, it felt as though much of Sunday’s music had been leading up to Buddy Guy’s performance. At the forefront of modern electric blues, rock, funk, and even jazz, his playing displayed the power to cement it all together in completely natural, compatible fashion. And to do so in a way that revealed how much the blues has inspired the jazz world.