26th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
The day's sets started solidly, first the talented Hamilton High School Academy of Music Ensemble "A" delivering mainstream sounds, followed by the legendary Gerald Wilson and his orchestra.. Arms outstretched, this incredible octogenarian brought strong solos and remarkable dynamics from the musicians before introducing two vocalists: veteran Barbara Morrison and upcoming diva Renee Olstead, at 15 a confident and compelling performer, who sang separately and together. Both elicited cheers from a usually lazy afternoon audience.
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove has reworked his style with the Rh Factor, shifting from mainstream jazz to pop and R&B. His talent is still obvious, now with a more commercial edge to it. But pity Peter Cincotti, toast of the Big Apple. The young pianist-vocalist sang sweet ballads and swung hard, but never connected with this audience. It was a perfectly good nightclub act, ill-timed and misplaced at a huge outdoor festival. I remember similar circumstances in past years during sets by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Nina Simone.
One of the new acts introduced this year was the most disappointing. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, promoted as a blend of gospel, soul and R&B, was overruled by Peter Frampton-style rock licks fueled by the leader's steel guitar licks and vocals.
The Michel Camilo Trio effected an abrupt change in pace, the Dominican pianist's luminous touch fanning Caribbean and Afro-Cuban fires. Another hit with the crowd was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, incredibly hip banjo licks abetted by flamboyant synth-axe drummer Future Man.
Two mixed-marriage ensembles greatly excited the crowd. The first was Katia Moraes and Sambaguru, a sextet merging musicians from Brazil, Sri Lanka and the U.S. Fronted by colorfully garbed and face-painted booty-shaking dancers, this highly percussive band was extremely well-received.
The second was vocalist-saxophonist Femi Kuti, who added elements of infectious funk to the '70s Afrobeat style originated by his Nigerian father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, using the sometimes-raucous hybrid to deliver messages of social commentary.
Subbing for TV dad Cosby on Father's Day was Kevin Eubanks, Jay Leno's bandleader, who is advised to keep his night gig, since all he could muster were repeated intonations to "Give it up for...." and "Show your love ..." (This festival doesn't really need an emcee, just an announcer.)
The festival's closing sets were as different as two possibly could be. The penultimate performance was the acclaimed collaboration of pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Brian Blade. The first three honed their sounds with Miles Davis in the '60s, resulting in near-psychic interplay on their originals, propelled by their young drummer. Aware of this seminal affiliation, the audience was properly attentive and respectful despite repeated sound system glitches.
The final spotlight was on BWB, currently one of the hottest contemporary jazz acts. Trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and guitarist Norman Brown were a predictable late-inning with this crowd. Their collective technical abilities are considerable, and they sure make the homies go home happy. I listened a bit, then headed off-Hollywood Boulevard to Miceli's for Italian food and gently played acoustic piano.