By Don Heckman
What is there to say about a Festival that loses its way?
It’s a question that kept running through my mind during the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl.
That’s not to challenge the quality of the sounds beamed from the Bowl stage to a capacity audience. Whatever the genre of music being offered from the rotating center stage, it was true to its essential identity.
But back to that question. Am I implying that the Playboy Jazz Festival lost its way in this latest installment?
Let’s take a look at the programming to see if it provides an answer.
Saturday’s bill included pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, singer Dianne Reeves, singer/pianist Jamie Cullum, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and his Big Band with vocalists Monica Mancini and Patti Austin, and vocalist Al Jarreau with Stanley Clarke in a tribute to George Duke.
On Sunday, the program featured bassist Dave Holland’s PRISM, and guitarist/singer George Benson with specical guest Earl Klugh.
Both days opened with stirring sets from a pair of Los Angeles High School jazz bands: the Beyond the Bell Jazz Band and the Esperanza High School Jazz Band.
No doubt that this list is a prime assemblage of authentic jazz artists, a list consistent with the Playboy Jazz Festival’s history of offering memorable jazz performances in every year’s programming.
But let’s take a look at the remaining line up:
The additional acts on Saturday’s program included: the New Jump Blues Band, saxophonist Tia Fuller, singer/songwriter Allen Stone, and the Hot 9 with singer/pianist Henry Butler and trumpeter Steven Bernstein.
The additional acts on the Sunday program included the James Cotton Blues Band, Juan DeMarcos & the Afro-Cuban all Stars, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, singer/songwriter Jose James and dynamic singer Fantasia, and Los Amigos Invisibles.
These latter two lists include a far-ranging assemblage of musical styles, all of it delivered with effective dedication to a color array of stylistic performances embracing the blues, funk, Latin rhythms, performance music and beyond.
Did it all – no matter how well it was done – belong on a program titled “Playboy Jazz Festival?
That’s an easy question to ask, and hard to answer. But my first response is “Not really.” Some of it was intriguing, some gripping, some annoying, some doing its best to include jazz influences here and there. But an overview of the entire program would have to identify the first artists I’ve listed above – from Jamie Cullum and Kenny Barron to Arturo Sandoval and Al Jarreau to Dave Holland and George Benson – as the most authentic jazz highlights of this year’s Festival.
To give credit to Festival 36 producers, it’s worth noting that the sort of iconic, stellar jazz artists (from Dizzy Gillespie to Ella Fitzgerald and beyond) who were available to past Festival programmers are no longer with us. In addition, this year’s Festival production has moved from Playboy to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And a glimpse at the overall program line-up seems to suggest a desire to reach an audience beyond the jazz demographic.
Nothing wrong with that, so long as the jazz roots that have been essential elements in past Festivals continue to be a vital, far-reaching presence. Which was not always the case with Saturday and Sunday’s program.
So, to wrap up with my first question, did the Festival lose its way this year, with its uneven programming?
And the answer is “No.”
But this listener, who has attended and reviewed many Playboy Festivals over the past few decades, hopes that next year’s production – in the hands of the L.A. Phil – will pay closer attention to the dedication to jazz that has consistently made the Playboy Jazz Festival one of the year’s most memorable jazz experiences.
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Photos courtesy of Mathew Imaging/Hollywood Bowl.