30th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
“ Captivating Japanese pianist Hiromi also returned this year, to dazzle the festival with a stunning set ”
30th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
June 14 and 15, 2008
The 30th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, one of the largest and longest-running jazz festivals in the nation, offered an action-packed 22-act mix of mainstream, contemporary, Latin, blues, big band and R&B sounds.
The two-day event has been known for presenting a diverse combination of legendary musicians, while introducing newer performers, and delivered exactly that. As expected, upbeat and high-energy sets elicited the most audience reaction, including Herbie "Mr. Grammy Album-of-the-Year" Hancock, Poncho Sanchez, Dr. John, Al Jarreau and RnR. The two muscular closing acts of each night, Tower of Power and Guitars & Saxophones, were appreciated to the last note with fewer fans leaving early than in previous years.
Both days were equally strong music-wise this year, my 26th time as a reviewer. It is obvious that most of the 18,000 listeners were there to party first and enjoy the performers as a secondary pleasure. So no matter who was on stage, everyone had a good time, whether in pricey box seats or high up in the bleachers sections of the Hollywood Bowl, nestled amid the Hollywood hills.
The festival's turntable-type stage kept the music going non-stopa band revolving out of sight on one half while another spun into view. The massive amphitheater's sound system was excellent except during a few early horn solos. Two jumbo screens on either side of the stage satisfied listeners in the nosebleed sections, where two additional screens operated after dark.
Hancock's set was the high point of the weekend and was enthusiastically received despite its timing, which coincided with the final quarter of a crucial Lakers-Celtics NBA game. Countless fans multi-tasked, watching the game on hand-held TV sets or iPhones, but were still fully involved in the music. And what music it was! Excerpting from Hancock's Joni Mitchell album, the band was enhanced by the surprise appearance of Wayne Shorter to perform the title track, "River."
Hancock often roamed the stage playing a portable Roland keyboard, trading improv licks with saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist David Holland and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Vocalists Amy Keys and Sonya Kitchell worked double magic against this stellar unit, and then electric bassist Marcus Miller joined to fuel "Watermelon Man" for a cadre of lithe pre-teen Debbie Allen Dance Academy members leaping across the stage in vigorous sync.
L.A. native son Poncho Sanchez has never failed to ignite the crowd with his fiery Latin sounds. Adding R&B singer-songwriter Eddie Floyd was an extra treat when he delivered his classic "Knock on Wood" from Sanchez's new CD, while "Raise Your Hand" impelled everyone to do so. The 13- member Puerto Rican band Plena Libre delivered an invigorating update on their native music, prompting numerous conga lines. Estimable Brazilian pianist-composer Ivan Lins teamed up with countryman guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves for a fairly low-key set of samba-style jazz that suited the late afternoon mood.
RnR, uniting two of the hottest stars of the contemporary jazz scene, immediately roused the audience to dance, even in the more sedate lower boxes. Trumpeter Rick Braun and Richard Elliot (playing a zebra- stripe tenor sax) gained the level of response to Kenny G in previous years, especially during a call-and- response segment.
Dr. John's funky fun ranged from "Love for Sale" to a message song referring to the Iraq war and Haliburton. Waves of white hankies accompanied his catchy groove, and it wasn't long before a Second Line was weaving down the upper aisles.
Tower of Power and Guitars & Saxophones were the perfect nightly closing acts for this hip audience. As a long-lived soul band (40 years), TOP stirred up excitement with voices and horns punching out "Get Your Feet Back on the Ground," "You Oughta Be Havin' Fun" and their sing-along anthem, "What Is Hip?" G&S, a staple of the smooth jazz genre since 1995, delivered a merger of blues-rock that included "Mr. Magic," flavored by saxophonist Gerald Albright, acoustic guitarist Peter White, electric guitarist Jeff Golub and keyboard groove-whiz Jeff Lorber.
Vocalists always are favorites of the Bowl crowd. Jarreau's voice morphed into instruments for "Take Five" and "Cold Duck Time," also while singing-scatting "My Funny Valentine" and "Since I Fell for You," all this to roars of approval. Vocalist Debbie Davis became an exciting new colleague, their liaison boosting the set's power. Dee Dee Bridgewater staged a tribute to her West African family-rooted region of Mali, merging native voices and instruments with American jazz. The set was a huge departure from her previous Ella Fitzgerald book, but enjoyed by the audience, which arose to dance. Bluesman Keb' Mo' sang a soul-satisfying set of Delta story-telling blues, employing acoustic guitar, dobro and harmonica, reflecting the true roots of the music. An earlier set debut of young singer-songwriter Ryan Shaw, which infused new life into R&B classics, had the feel of a joyful revival service.
As one of the most enduring figures in modern jazz, saxophonist James Moody has performed in other bands in the past but led his own this time. He wasted no time in singing his trademark "Moody's Mood for Love." At 83 he still plays with the same fluid expression that made him a titan in Gillespie's All Star Band and one of the all-time tenor sax greats. I was especially glad to hear trumpeter Terence Blanchard playing in his original brightly dynamic style, rather than in his solemn, Katrina-tribute mode of the past year. But vocalist Roberta Gambarini failed to ignite the crowd despite her huge range and scat gymnastics.
Two big bands redefined the ensemble sound. The all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra proved "girls swing hard, too," whether playing upbeat or ballad-style, especially the stylish verve they delivered on "America" from West Side Story. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove led a festival big band for the first time with altoist Bruce Williams as a stand-out soloist. Gambarini also guested and the powerful band proved better- suited to her strong chops and Diane Schuur-style range.
Repeating his emcee chores for the 27th time, Bill Cosby staged his Cos of Good Music X, playing drum set and directing, including a tribute to Jimmy McGriff with B3-man Jerry Peters. Great energy and quality sounds were delivered by pianist Benny Green, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, guitarist David T. Walker, fresh new trumpeter Ambrose Akinsuire, bassist Dwayne Burno and percussionist Ndugu Chancler.
Captivating Japanese pianist Hiromi also returned this year, to dazzle the festival with a stunning set that included an incredible rendition of "Caravan" combining jazz, rock, funk and punkthat would be hard to top. Drummer Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet proved the lasting impact of Thelonious, four horns riffing on the pianist's weird-but-wonderful melodies. Pianist Robert Glaspar's trio fused jazz with hip-hop and soul for an intriguing sound. The two student ensembles earned their place in each day's opening sets.
An added feature this year, at the beginning and end of each day's sets, was a photo montage of highlights of previous 29 festivals, among them unforgettable images of Miles Davis, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams and Dizzy Gillespie. The first Playboy Jazz Festival was staged in 1979 in the Hollywood Bowl.