Live Jazz: the 35th Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl (Day #2)

Review by Devon Wendell

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson

Hollywood, CA.  For the most part, it’s not just the music that has made The Annual Playboy Jazz Festival a Los Angeles summer tradition, but instead, it’s the music combined with the ever present party atmosphere.  And this year was no different. Amidst the clouds of pot smoke and spilled beer on the ground, The 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival featured an eclectic blend of artists in the genres of jazz, funk, pop, blues and more.

Before getting to my highlights of Sunday’s program, I thought I’d include just a few exciting additions from Saturday’s show to follow up on Mike Katz’s coverage.

Grace Kelly
Grace Kelly

From pop to bop, the amazing 21 year old saxophone titan Grace Kelly played a stellar set which included be-bop and pop influences, playing bop style instrumentals and catchy pop infused jazz vocal tunes.  Kelly proved to be one of the most original and fascinating new faces in jazz. Her childlike vocals on “Nighttime Star,” fused with her vast knowledge of both bop and post-bop saxophone playing was astounding.  When she plays alto sax, you can hear Bird, Art Pepper and Jackie Mclean, but with a new, youthful, feminine and energetic swing to it.

Kelly was joined by the legendary Phil Woods (also a major influence on her alto sax playing) for “Man With The Hat,” which the two had recorded together in 2011.

Woods was in strong form and Kelly played like a waterfall, with endless ideas and a superb technique. This was easily one of the finest moments of the festival.

Gregory Porter

Gregory Porter’s performance at the festival demonstrated why he has received so many accolades from all over the world. This time out, Porter focused more on his gospel and R&B influences than jazz during his brief set, which made it all the more interesting.

This was the case on Porter’s rendition of Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song,” in which Porter opened the song with a few verses of Leadbelly’s “Alberta.” Porter’s controlled and carefully crafted phrasing along with his magnetic stage presence brought the Bowl crowd to church.

Sunday’s program had a lot more fire and electricity than Saturday’s.

It’s hard to imagine combining jazz and rock piano with a dance ensemble but acclaimed pianist Elew (joined by Jazzantiqua Dance Ensemble) did just that and made it work.

Elew and Jazzantiqua Dance Ensemble
Elew and Jazzantiqua Dance Ensemble

Elew stood up while playing, looking like a mad scientist while he stared intensely at the audience. The Jazzantiqua Dance Ensemble did graceful, ballet interpretations of Elew’s readings of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside.”

Elew fused the stride piano styles of James P. Johnson with Horace Silver. Though asking a lot of the festival audience, this was a fascinating experiment both visually and sonically.

Chris and Dan Brubeck
Chris and Dan Brubeck

One of the purest jazz acts of the festival was The Brubeck Brothers, lead by Dave Brubeck’s sons, Chris Brubeck on bass and trombone, and Dan Brubeck on drums.

The two were joined by Mike Demicco on guitar and Chuck Lamb on piano, making up a tight, focused, and dynamic quartet. The brothers paid a warm, heartfelt Father’s Day tribute to their legendary father, Dave Brubeck who passed away on December 5, 2012.

Their set included many Brubeck classics such as; “Kathy’s Waltz,” “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” and “Take Five.” The group performed these songs with elegance, dynamics, and devotion. Pianist Lamb’s use of well spaced block chords were reminiscent of the late Brubeck’s piano style and Chris’s fusion style electric bass locked in tight with Dan’s soft and melodic drumming. Demicco’s guitar solos were tasteful and served the compositions perfectly.  Altogether, they produced a terrific performance – one that Dave Brubeck would surely have been proud of.

Taj Mahal

Very few artists know the history of American blues like Taj Mahal. At The festival, Mahal was joined by The Real Thing Tuba Band which consisted of four tuba players (Earl McIntyre, Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart, and John Daley) with Mahal playing acoustic guitar, dobro and harmonica. John Simon played keyboard, with Buddy Williams on drums and Larry Fulcher on guitar.

If anyone else tried this format, it would be a cluttered mess but Mahal had the brilliance and wit to pull it off.

The Mahal set consisted of country blues standards that he has been performing for decades – tunes such as his own, “Going Up To The Country, Paint My Mailbox Blues,” “EZ Rider,” as well as Fats Dominos’ “Hello Josephine,” Charlie Patton’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond” and “Way Back Home.”  The tubas played the harmony parts that would normally be sung by background singers, while occasionally soloing tastefully.  Mahal and the band’s set brought some much needed blues to the festival, taking the audience on a journey back down South to the true roots of American music.

Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones

To celebrate Quincy Jones’ 80th birthday, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra performed a set of such Jones big band classics as “The Birth Of A Band,” “G’Wan Train,” “Nasty Madness” (which Jones had written for Count Basie) and Jones’ arrangement of  Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’.”

The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra

The Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, conducted by John Clayton, was superb on these big band swing blues classics. After a proud Jones took a bow from his Bowl seat, The great jazz flutist Hubert Laws (who’s known and worked with Jones since 1969) joined the Orchestra on “Hello” and “Killer Joe.” Laws’ fluid and melodic style danced over the slick and funky rhythms with syncopation and ease.  This was not only a touching tribute to Jones but a wonderful insight into big band arrangements which were inspired by Count Basie, and Jay Mcshann’s earliest works.

Very few artists can combine traditional forms of jazz with pop and fusion like Bob James and David Sanborn. Together with James Genus on bass, and Steve Gadd on drums, James and Sanborn brought their smooth and soulful sound to the festival.

Bob James and David Sanborn
Bob James and David Sanborn

James’ fluid and inventive piano style blended perfectly with Sanborn’s confident, melodic playing and it’s always great hearing Steve Gadd on drums in any setting. The high point of the set was Sanborn’s composition “In The Weeds.” Here, Sanborn broke free from many of his smooth jazz clichés and played some hard-bop tenor sax in the vein of John Coltrane and Joe Henderson.


India.Arie brought her unique style of “acoustic soul” to the festival. Arie’s songs, such as “Because I Am Queen,” “I Am Light” and “I Am Not My Hair, were filled with self empowering lyrics and a sound that fused vintage soul with gospel, hip-hop, and even folk rock and reggae. Arie’s vocals were at moments sweet and delicate, then tough and preachy. Her graceful stage presence and physical beauty provided a perfect match for her songs of inner strength and spirituality.  Unlike so many female R&B artists of the day, Arie has a style of her own with soulfully crafted arrangements and poignant lyrics.

Sheila E rocked The Playboy Jazz Festival last year. Although her set this year felt a little more laid back and less focused than last year, no one puts on a show like Sheila E.

Sheila E and Pete Escovedo
Sheila E and Pete Escovedo

Her set opened with The USC Trojan Drumline marching onto the stage, followed shortly by Sheila, who raced to her drum kit in a short black leather skirt. After several long drum and conga solos, she welcomed her father Pete Escovedo to the stage for a Father’s Day jam on Tito Puente’s classic “Oye Como Va.” Escovedo played timbales while his daughter pounded furiously on congas.

Sheila E
Sheila E

Pop Escovedo departed, and Sheila dug into some of her biggest hits of the ‘80s: “Love Bizarre,” “Holly Rock,” “Koo Koo” and a steamy version of “Erotic City”, written by her longtime collaborator Prince.

Though Sheila E’s set consisted of too many over indulgent jams with drum solo after drum solo, followed by the guitar hysterics of her bandmate, Nate Mercereau, it was Sheila’s sensual stage presence and magnetism that had the entire Bowl crowd on its feet.

She brought audience members up onstage to dance and engaged in many crowd pleasing sing alongs, as she danced suggestively from her drum kit, to her congas and her timbales.

And, as the final act, Sheila E’s success at getting everyone on their feet was the best way to end the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival.

And so another Playboy Jazz festival has come and gone. Though there were no conga lines going through the crowd this year, the lineup had something for everyone, a little jazz, rock, pop, blues, funk, Salsa, fusion, but most importantly, a lot of fun.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


One thought on “Live Jazz: the 35th Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl (Day #2)

  1. Wow, nice work, man. The whole damn thing. I’ve never had the discipline to review everything. There’s free beer in the press room, and a bevy playmates in the box next door, giggling.


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