By Devon Wendell
The Playboy Jazz Festival presented its second free community concert at The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall on Sunday June 2nd with two artists (Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler) who have a very special, long time musical partnership and chemistry, along with special guest, guitar session master Paul Jackson Jr., and Bassist Reggie Hamilton.
Kicking off the program was The Harmony Project Jazz Ensemble, which is an award winning, non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the healthy growth and development of at-risk children through the study, practice and performance of music.
This orchestra of nervous, wide-eyed teens, performing under the careful direction of Amose Delone, offered a short set of jazz classics such as: Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” and Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.”
The stars of the Harmony Jazz orchestra were 14 year old keyboardist Jamael Dean (grandson of jazz drummer great Donald Dean) and tenor sax player Keanan Bower. These kids gave it their all and played with soul and focus.
Seeing keyboard great Patrice Rushen and master percussionist Ndugu Chancler (now calling themselves 1+One) take the stage together is always a special treat, and this was no exception. The two have been playing and writing together in various musical settings for 40 years now. The addition of Reggie Hamilton on bass and special guest Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar added some texture and energy to the duo.
The set opened with “Number One,” a funk original by Rushen that brought to mind Earth, Wind, And Fire in their prime. Chancler played timbales while Rushen soloed in her distinct, melodic, jazz-fueled style. Paul Jackson played tight rhythm guitar and Hamilton slapped his Fender bass.
The most jazz oriented moments of the set were the band’s renditions (with Jackson Jr. laying out) of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” Rushen played her synthesizer soft and delicately, reminiscent of Duke Ellington at times, but mostly sticking to her endlessly fluid and imaginative style.
Hamilton played an amazing bowed solo on “I Mean You,” and Chancler’s drumming was pure be-bop on these jazz classics, echoing Roy Haynes and Max Roach.
On “Con Mio,” Hamilton laid out, leaving Chancler and Rushen to have some strong musical conversations. Chancler played vibes on this number and proved to be as equally virtuosic and colorful vibraphonist as he is a drummer and percussionist.
Rushen would come in occasionally playing some sweet synthesizer chords and flourishes. Chanceler’s stellar performance on vibes made this one of the show’s highlights.
Although Rushen is a great singer in her own right, with a soulful, almost childlike voice, the rest of the show consisted of way too many jazz/fusion funk clichés, obviously chosen to please the crowd. This was certainly the case on: “When You’re Alone,” and “You Remind Me.”
Rushen and Chancler have contributed greatly to the funk and 80s synth- pop worlds, but the performances here felt less musical and more performance oriented as the show went on. I would have liked to have heard Rushen play fewer cheesy synthesizer presets and play more straight ahead jazz.
Paul Jackson Jr. returned to the stage and led the band through three of his original compositions. “The Workout” and “2 For 10,000” fell back on bland jazz/fusion patterns, but the haunting minor key blues of “14 Til” was the highlight of the entire program. Jackson ditched the safe and generic George Benson jazz tone of his other songs and played one of the most incredible, tortured-sounding guitar solos I’ve heard in a long time. There were hints of Santana, Jeff Beck, and Hendrix, but Jackson played with an originality and raw emotion rarely heard from guitar players these days.
Unfortunately, the show continued and ended with more funk gimmicks, unnecessary sing-alongs, and other stage antics. But they seemed to get the crowd on their feet and dancing, especially the show’s closer, “Forget Me Nots” (heavily borrowed by Will Smith on the Men In Black theme song) in which aisles of people were shaking to the thumping bass. Though this became monotonous, Rushen demonstrated that she is not only a fantastic musician but also a powerhouse performer.
1+One, with special guest Paul Jackson Jr. and The Harmony Jazz Ensemble Project were the perfect choices to usher in the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival (which will be held at The Hollywood Bowl on June 15-16th) because both acts played a mixture of jazz and party music that got people dancing and having a good time, which is one of the things that the Festival is all about.
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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.