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The Playboy Jazz Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary at the Hollywood Bowl and since its inauguration much has changed. The lineup in 1979 as listed in the Los Angeles Times on June 2nd for the first day included Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Harold Land and a special tribute to Charles Mingus featuring Joni Mitchell. The second day consisted of Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, Flora Purim, Willie Bobo, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan and Weather Report. Bill Cosby was the emcee for both days.
Unquestionably, mainstream jazz wasn’t highlighted in 2018 like it was “back in the day.” Nonetheless, with comedian George Lopez as the Master of Ceremonies for the fifth year, there were some remarkable and memorable moments of that ilk at the annual Southern California soiree. At the top was Hubtones: Freddie Hubbard’s 80th Birthday Celebration with an ensemble of first-rate trumpeters, Nicholas Payton, Randy Brecker, Jeremy Pelt and bandleader/Musical Director David Weiss (was in Hubbard’s bands for the last eight years of his life). Excellent rhythm players, Benny Green on piano, Vicente Archer playing bass and Roy McCurdy on drums supported during sublime renderings of Hubbard’s classics, ballad “Up Jumped Spring,” bebopish “Birdlike” and the very popular and much sampled thematic “Red Clay” as the finale.
As always, the venerable 18-piece Count Basie Orchestra that’s been directed by Scotty Barnhart since Basie’s passing away in 1984 revved up the Bowl crowd. High-flying brass forays for jaunty classics “Blues in Hoss Flat,” “Everyday I Have The Blues” featuring Everett Greene’s vocals, and immortal “April in Paris” highlighted their fast-paced set. Guitarist and vocalist Roy Gaines entertainingly injected T-Bone Walker and BB King styled blues into big band jazz, doing popular songs “Fill My Whiskey Cup,” “Let’s Have a Natural Ball” and “I’m a Bluesman For Life” while waling away with his players.
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels were bluesy and also edgy with the reed master incorporating the talents of guitarists Bill Frisell and Stuart Mathis, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. Their jam-like version of Dylan’s “Master of War” and an Ornette Coleman composition were performed with the bandleader and Frisell creatively interweaving as the other players supplied riveting rhythmic and textural layers. Alt-country singer Lucinda Williams who’s on their upcoming CD Vanished Gardens submerged the mood with sullen and poetic lyrics for the title track and Ventura, while also injecting her own raucous “You Took My Joy.”
Conversely, Los Angeles-based 15-person Parlor Social was a time warp blend of Harlem Renaissance music, hip-hop and in between. The group showcased singer/songwriter Dessy Di Lauro and multi-instrumentalist Ric’key Pageot for songs such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You” and “The Joint is Jumping” featuring tap dancers/backup singers Kayla Watson and Samantha Schultz with Lopez joining in.
In the tradition of Weather Report, The Miles Electric Band headed by the legendary and innovative trumpeter’s nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn, came out with a hard-hitting fusion set. It was highlighted by blazing guitar from Dwayne “Blackbird” McKnight, Pelt on trumpet and the rest of the 10-piece ensemble. Interestingly, their segment included Davis’ non fusion compositions such as “Nefertiti,” “Seven Steps to Heaven” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
After the Miles Electric Band and before Lee Ritenour & David Grusin, Cooper Hefner briefly paid tribute to his recently passed away jazz festival founding father, Hugh. Coinciding with the speech a montage of pictures and videos from performances on the Playboy After Dark TV series and other Playboy shows was shown on the LED walls for the audience.
Los Angeles’ Kneebody with Ben Wendel playing sax, Shaine Endsley on trumpet, Adam Benjamin on keyboards, Kaveh Rastegar on bass/leader and Nate Wood playing drums, were an intriguing 21st century version of fusion. There emphasis was more on rhythm and unit playing for numbers such as “Drum Battle” and “Chapters.” Grammy Winning Snarky Puppy from Brooklyn by way of the University of North Texas were one slot from being headliners and played jam band-like grooves with touches of funk that delighted the audience.
The same could be said for 17-year-old blind keyboard wonder, Matthew Whitaker’s Trio, who were a mixture of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Smith. With Edward Morcaldi III on guitar and drummer Sipho Kunene he charmed the audience playing lively interpretations of “More Than Yesterday,” “Mas Quenada” and Wonder’s “As.” Veteran ivory player Ramsey Lewis and Quintet with keyboardist Tim Grant, guitarist Henry Johnson, drummer Charles Heath and bassist Joshua Ramos were more polished and reprised his “In Crowd,” the Stylistics “Betcha By Golly Wow,” Wonder’s “Just Enough For The City” and “Sun Goddess” that he originally recorded with Earth, Wind & Fire’s creator, Maurice White.
Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin reunited, with Melvin Davis playing bass and Ritenour’s son Wes on bass for equally polished contemporary numbers. They served up a contemporary version of “Stolen Moments” with the bassist scatting and also doing a short tribute to Al Jarreau. Grusin played a piano solo piece for June birthdays that included his own, while guitarist Ritenour shined on Rufus’ funky “You Got The Love.” Another anniversary was second day headlining Tower of Power’s 50th that coincided with their new CD Soul Side of Town. Lead singer Marcus Scott delivered stirring singing with the mighty 9-piece band’s trademark horns for popular hits “You Ought to be Having Fun,” “What is Hip,” ballad “You’re Still a Young Man” dedicated to Lopez and the new anthem-like title track.
Going back to the first PJF with Purim, Bobo and to a lesser degree, Gillespie, Latin music have always been strongly represented. Richard Bona and his Mandekan Cubano septet were the strongest in that regard. Bona charismatically combined Cuban music with African spirit to get many fired up and dancing. Among those pieces were “Ekwa Mwato,” “Matanga” bolstered by muted trumpet, piano and bass solos and “Santa Clara Con Montuno” an energetic cumbia featuring a scorching guitar solo.
Daymé Arocena also from Cuba formerly a member of Jane Bunnett’s Maqueque all female group sang powerfully in English and Spanish with her trio made up of Jorge Luis Lagarza on piano, Rafael Aldama on bass and drummer Marcos Morales for dramatic “Eleggua,” cha-cha Lo Que Fue with the audience somewhat singing along and funky “Todo Por Amor” featuring bass.
Fast emerging Latin Grammy winning (Best New Band) octet Monsieur Perine from Columbia incorporated elements of pop, jazz, rock and klezmer into their music with lead singer Catalina Garcia singing sweetly. Somewhat related to Latin music but clearly in category all their own was harpist Edmar Castaneda’s Quartet. Supporting him was Marshall Gikes on trombone, Rodrigo Villalon playing drums with guest harmonica master Grégoire Maret. Together with them the Colombian native harpist was a force in performance intensely weaving textures and riffs for far-reaching numbers including solo piece “Jesus of Nazareth.
Clearly not related to jazz in the least were modern soul performers, Jazmine Sullivan and Anthony Hamilton, who nonetheless had plenty of fans enjoying their 21st century R&B grooves. Undoubtedly, from a variety of perspectives, the 50th PJF should be interesting and very unpredictable.
2018 PLAYBOY JAZZ FESTIVAL REVIEW
by Chris Walker