By Michael Katz
I told myself I had finally come to terms with the Playboy Jazz Festival. This year I would enjoy it for what it was: an eight hour party at the Hollywood Bowl, a sort of Bar Mitzvah/Quinceanera for grown-ups, with perhaps half of it (on a good day) dedicated to actual jazz, or what Stephen Colbert might call “jazziness.” It turns out, though I’m appreciative of some of the fine things I heard, that I am not as prepared to settle as I’d thought. For starters, the Festival’s format, in which continuous music is presented on the rotating stage for eight hours, could use some alterations after thirty-four years. There is no opportunity for the audience to take a breath between acts, to reflect on the music, and most importantly, to converse with each other without talking over the music or ignoring it completely. Not surprisingly, folks will pick a moment of relative quiet to mingle and nosh – more and more, those moments coincide with the appearance of an actual jazz band onstage, which means that the best moments for many of us are drowned out or obstructed.
Would it harm anyone to have a fifteen minute break here and there, so the audience can absorb the performances, uncork the wine bottles and acclimate themselves for a change in tempo?
With that off my chest, here’s a report on some of the jazzier aspects of Day 1. Early arrivers walked into a pleasant performance by Louie Cruz Beltran, the first of a talented contingent of Latino percussionists. Beltran’s emphasis was on Latin jazz. His ensemble featured Onaje Murray on vibes, which gave it a Cal Tjader-like sound, much appreciated by LA jazz fans. Jose Gomez on saxes and flute, Javier Gonzales on trumpet and Eric Jorgensen wielding a candy apple red trombone added to the ambience. You’d have liked to have heard this band at night with a dance floor, but it was a relaxing way to start the day on a sun-kissed afternoon.
Bill Cosby was emceeing for the last time, after thirty years fronting the Festival, and of all his contributions, his Cos of Good Music bands may be missed the most. This year’s group was notable for an all female front line of Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tia Fuller and Erena Terakubo on alto saxes, all three of them talented enough to headline.
The first medley, though slightly disorganized at the segues, featured some blistering work by Terakubo, who established the main line of “Cherokee,” then did an homage to Charlie Parker that wowed the jazz aficionados in the crowd. Jensen, who was featured previously in one of Cos’s bands, slowed the tempo down with “Back Home In Indiana,” settling into a comfortable groove that showed her mastery of the horn’s middle register. Tia Fuller then took over with some hard swinging on alto. Having seen her leading her own group at Monterey last year, I was prepared to see her step out and dominate, but she was content to be a team player with this talented group.
Next, pianist Farid Barron slid lithely from the percussion intros of Babatunde Lea and Nndugu Chancler into the familiar chords of “Poinciana.” Barron wove in creative variations on the theme, then gave way to Fuller, Jensen and Terakubo for some gently swinging solos. The next tune was a hard bop nod to the late Freddie Hubbard, Ingrid Jensen underlining her lead trumpet chops with some powerful, growling charges. Bill Cosby had joined the band by now; this hard bop material clearly to his liking. He then contributed some vocals to the Lieber/ Stoller classic “Searchin,” which had the whole band in a joyous funk. Let’s hope that the festival finds a way to keep the “Cos of Good Music” (or something like it) in the program as a way to bring talented and under-heard musicians to the Bowl.
The Global Gumbo All-Stars took the stage following a raucous set by Ivan Neville’s Soul Rebels. With the crowd still buzzing and the funky New Orleans horns reverberating, Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriquez’s opening chords could barely be discerned – at first I wondered whether the piano was miked at all. Rodriguez, a prodigy of Quincy Jones, who had been heard with these players at last year’s tribute to Quincy at the Bowl, is carving his own path in the wake of countrymen Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcabo. He navigated through the opening number with an off-minor riff, augmented by guitarist Lionel Loueke from Benin, Africa.
Loueke, who has worked with Terence Blanchard, Jack DeJohnette and Herbie Hancock, among others, can move easily between lilting African rhythms and acid-tinged solos. In the group’s second number, he shared an instrumental and vocal duet with bassist Richard Bona. Bona, from Cameroon, has long, lithe fingers that pluck his electric bass like it was a banjo. His voice, which can seamlessly explore the higher ranges, is a perfect counterpoint to his bass playing. He performs with a joyous energy that can captivate a crowd — I’ve seen him fronting his own band on several occasions.
Driving the rhythms behind all this was percussionist Francisco Mela, also from Cuba. Mela didn’t show off much, but he provided an infectious backdrop for the quartet, especially when Bona and Loueke were riffing with each other. They followed a Rodriguez solo with a funky combination of R&B chords and vocals, then moved into one of Bona’s originals from his Tiki album. By this time, the crowd had put down their dinner plates and figured out that something exciting was going on. This was a group that you would have wanted to extend into multiple sets if you were in a club. As it was, pianist Rodriguez closed things out with a riveting mambo, and the Global Gumbo All Stars rotated off into the night.
Christian McBride brought his touring big band to the bowl, following R&B singer Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
A driving big band ought to put a charge into the house, but again, they were following a group that had amped up the volume, and it took about half the set to engage the audience. This, despite a rousing first number, a McBride composition, “Shake and Blake,” which featured trumpeter Ron Blake. He and fellow sax player Steve Wilson were the best known names in the band, which featured mainly east coast guys that we don’t see often. Other standouts included Steve Davis on trombone, Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and Loren Schoenberg on tenor sax. McBride took the melody on a pretty big band arrangement of “I Should Care,” then brought his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker onto the stage for three numbers.
Walker has a tender voice that dropped down into the middle registers for a lovely version of “When I Fall In Love.” Her reading of “The More I See You,” had an engaging swing that closed out her contribution to the set. It was the final two numbers, though, that brought the crowd to their feet. McBride brought Bill Cosby up front to sing his signature “Hikky-Burr,” the theme from “The Bill Cosby Show” that was originally recorded by Quincy Jones. Despite the short rehearsal time, the performance was crisp, Cosby was delighted and the crowd picked up on it from the opening notes. The excitement spilled over to the band’s final number, “In A Hurry,” one of McBride’s best original compositions. Drummer Ulysses Owens, whom McBride gushed over in a post-concert interview, showed why with a terrific solo to close out the set.
And, though it was only a little past nine o’clock, that was about the end of the jazz for Day One. That is not to slight Sheila E, whose set provided the standard for energy and showmanship.
She came on, escorted by the plumed Samba Funk dancers, and went straight to the timbales, where she performed with abandon. Her dad, Pete Escovido, came out for a brief interlude, singing a Latin tinged “Fly Me To The Moon,” and contributing a timbale solo of his own before turning the show back to his daughter. Sheila E led her horn-fronted band in a performance reminiscent of Trombone Shorty at last year’s festival, leaving the audience cheering and dancing in the aisles.
At the end of the day, you could be thankful that the Playboy Jazz Festival had brought a bunch of talented musicians that we don’t hear often to play for a capacity crowd. Still, you had to wonder if there was a single instrumentalist other than bassist McBride who could be counted upon to headline an act. The hand-picked groups are fun to watch, but I miss the virtuosity of a current jazz star like Roy Hargrove or Nicholas Payton, Miguel Zenon or Eric Alexander, who can lift a crowd over a fifty minute set. Despite the constant dirges about the death of jazz, there is no shortage of talent out there.
All it takes is a little faith in the music.
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Photos of Tia Fuller, Ingrid Jensen and Irina Terakubo, the Christian McBride Big Band and Sheila E. by Bonnie Perkinson.
To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.
To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.