Playboy 2011
Festival Reviews
There are several ways to evaluate the 33th annual Playboy Jazz Festival. It took place as usual over a June weekend at
the Hollywood Bowl. For reasons never explained, the pair of 8 1/2 hour concerts was a bit shorter than usual, with
Saturday being 8 hours and Sunday just 7 1/2. Each year during this weekend, the Hollywood Bowl becomes home to
18,000 people who create their own utopia filled with food, drink, smoke and good cheer. At the top of the Bowl, a
somewhat humorous community is formed with people bringing chairs, blankets, dominoes, chess sets and even
couches. Up in the bleachers, and actually throughout much of the Bowl, the music is almost besides the point, secondary
to the party and the happy vibes.
For those of us who are also at the Bowl for the music, the lineup is always eclectic and sometimes quite eccentric. While
jazz is the festival's purpose, it sometimes disappears for hours at a time. When the music is high-quality blues on the
level of Buddy Guy or danceable World music, the departures are largely acceptable. Other times, as with Saturday's
finale, it can get a bit unbearable for jazz fans.
The festival began with the LAUSD All City High School Big Band under the direction of Tony White and JB Dyas. The
ensemble played “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Eddie Harris' “Sham Time,” “Category 4” and “Straight No Chaser.” The band had
spirit, an excellent saxophone section, and fine young soloists in pianist Anthony Lucca and tenor-saxophonist Nigel Stoli.
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who recently recorded a CD for Blue Note, led a post bop quintet that also featured
tenor-saxophonist Walter Smith III. and pianist Sam Harris. While the musicianship and explorative solos were impressive,
the original compositions were largely forgettable, showing that at this point Akinmusire is a more significant trumpeter
than composer.
Bill Cosby, the festival's emcee, led an all-star group called The Cos Of Good Music. With Anat Cohen on clarinet and
tenor, trombonist George Bohanon, Geri Allen (on electric keyboards), acoustic bassist Dwayne Burno, electric bassist
Alphonso Johnson, drummer Ndugu Chancler, and Babatunde Lea (plus Cosby) on percussion, this set had potential. But
in addition to the very heavy bass and percussion sound of the group, the poor sound quality largely sunk the set. When
the bass drum is louder than the entire band and Bohanon is largely inaudible during his melody statement on a very slow
version of “Laura,” there was little reason for the audience to pay attention. Cohen and Bohanon tried their best but it was
all for naught.
One would expect the Rebirth Brass band and their guests (altoist Donald Harrison, clarinetist Dr. Michael White,
trombonist-singer Big Sam Williams and especially trumpeter Kermit Ruffins) to be real crowd pleasers, but their set was
frustrating for listeners and potential dancers alike. Whenever the band would gain some momentum and the dancers
were ready to form conga lines, annoying vocals or commentary would kill the music's passion. Harrison spent as much
time chanting as playing, White's feature on “St. James Infirmary” found most of the musicians way out of tune, for no
reason some of the musicians took pleasure in yelling into the microphones, and there were an excess of one-chord funk
jams. Only the closing five-minute version of “The Saints” got the crowd roused. Next time, the group should simply play
“The Saints” for an hour; the place would go crazy.
The San Francisco Jazz Collective, an octet consisting of altoist Greg Osby, tenor-saxophonist David Sanchez,
trombonist Robin Eubanks, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt
Penman and drummer Eric Harland, played modernized and reharmonized versions of Stevie Wonder songs. The playing
was as superb as one would expect from this talent with Harris often taking honors and a fine tradeoff by Osby and
Sanchez on “My Cherie Amour.” But the sound quality was distorted and too loud, and many of the melodies were
rendered unrecognizable by the arrangements. If the band had stated the themes in a simpler fashion before the
improvisations, they might have won over the audience.
The next two sets were the most successful of the day. Dianne Reeves, who was making her eighth appearance at
Playboy, proved to be at the peak of her powers. Her set was very jazz-oriented and, even when her group (which included
pianist Peter Martin and guitarist Peter Sprague) got into an r&b groove, Reeves' scatting kept the music creative. When
she finished her set (which included “Stormy Weather”) and it turned out that she still had more time, she sang
unaccompanied at first, led the group through a spontaneous vamp, and ended with “Afro Blue.” Also a big hit that day
was Eddie Palmieri's Salsa Orchestra. The pianist balanced salsa (with vocals by Herman Olivera and tres guitarist
Nelson Gonzalez) with jazz, featuring trumpeter Brian Lynch and both Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch on trombones.
Palmieri successfully turned the Hollywood Bowl into a big Latin dance party and David Sanchez sat in on the stirring
Normally smooth music closes each night, and that should have been the case Saturday. Fourplay as usual found pianist
Bob James, guitarist Chuck Loeb, bassist-singer Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason playing lightweight and very
predictable background music that was pleasant but far beneath the capabilities of these musicians. Finishing the night
was The Roots, a seven-piece hip hop group that included a dancing tuba player (which was amusing for a few minutes)
and was dominated by a loud and endless rapper. What logic went into booking this group at a jazz festival? Trumpeter
Terence Blanchard guested on two songs, screaming high notes, but it was too little too late. The rapping was horrifying to
those who want to hear jazz, making this one of the lowpoints in the history of the Playboy Jazz Festival. Next time, why not
save money and just have an unaccompanied drum machine on stage?
Fortunately Sunday was much better. The Pullum High School Big Band had some fine arrangements including a medley
of songs associated with Bill Cosby, and tenor-saxophonist Aaron Shaw and guitarist Chris Payton both showed potential
in their solos. Next up, Cuban songwriter and guitarist Carlos Varela sang folk songs in Spanish in a voice that at times
recalled Bob Dylan. His pianist Tony Rodriguez was jazz-oriented even if his set was not.
But then the jazz festival returned, and on a high level. Geri Allen (this time on acoustic piano) led her Timeline Band, a
quintet that included J.D. Allen on tenor and the outstanding tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Even if the drummer
sometimes seemed unnecessary (why not just use the tapper in the drummer's role?), the music was outstanding. The
originals (which included “Philly Joe”) flowed into each other like a suite.
Altoist Lee Konitz had to cancel what would have been his debut at Playboy due to illness but Terence Blanchard (who
fortunately did not play a Roots medley!) was a perfect replacement. His set, with tenor-saxophonist Brice Winston co-
starring, was full of intense fire and one could feel Blanchard really stretching himself. The band closed with a Miles Davis-
style blues and, as the stage turned, guitarist John Scofield continued with the piece, ending with Davis' typical closing
phrase. A matchup between Scofield and Robben Ford was played largely on Ford's turf as the two guitar greats co-led a
quartet through one rocking blues after another, with Ford taking occasional vocals. It was great fun.
Bill Cunliffe is a very talented pianist, but his appearance with the Resonance Big Band was as an arranger and
conductor. To celebrate the legacy and brilliance of the late Oscar Peterson, Cunliffe assembled together a big band and
featured the virtuosic pianist Marian Petrescu who really has Peterson's style mastered. Petrescu played some very fast
lines on such tunes as “Tricotism,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Cakewalk” (which was arranged by John Beasley), “John Brown's
Body,” and a medley from “West Side Story.” While there were occasional short solos for others (including trumpeter Bob
Summers), the big band, which was driven by drummer Joe LaBarbera, mostly acted as an inspiring backdrop for
Petrescu. His solo piano rendition of Peterson's “A Little Jazz Exercise” bordered on the incredible. A guest soloist,
Casey Abrams (formerly on American Idol), was featured singing and playing bass on “I've Got The World On A String,”
but he is not ready yet for prime time despite a winning personality.
Naturally 7 is an entertaining a capella septet. While much of their music was funky (including imitations of a drum
machine and a turntable), they were remarkable in their own way, imitating guitar, clarinet, tenor sax, trumpet and other
instruments with wit.
A tribute to James Brown which emphasized the African side of his music was also entertaining although one naturally
missed Brown. His alumni trombonist Fred Wesley and tenor-saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis were well featured (including on
some instrumentals), trombonist Chad Bernstein also played shells a la Steve Turre, there were several singers, and
altoist Charles McNeal was cast in the role of Maceo Parker.
One of the highpoints of the festival was veteran bluesman Buddy Guy. His rockish guitar solos were as stinging as ever,
Guy was frequently hilarious throughout his performance and his repertoire included “Hoochie Coochie Man,” ”What Kind
Of Woman Is This,” “Since You Were Slipping Out,” and an imitation of Albert King. He also introduced 12-year old Quinn
Sullivan, a prodigy who played some powerful guitar and took confident vocals on two songs while Guy beamed at him.
Closing the festival was Harmony 3, a smooth all-star group featuring saxophonists Ronnie Laws and Walter Beasley plus
guitarist Stanley Jordan. The playing of Laws and Beasley (including on “Mister Magic” and “Listen Here”) mostly made
one miss Grover Washington Jr. while Jordan performed music that he could have played in his sleep, but it was a
pleasing way to end the party known as the Playboy Jazz Festival.