| The 38th annual Playboy Jazz Festival featured 15 ½ hours of music over a June weekend, 20 groups in all. As usual the partying
audience was consistently loud although all but the quieter groups were able to overcome the constant noise. Big improvements over
earlier years were the emceeing of George Lopez (whose concise information about the groups and funny comments were perfect for
the festival) and the sound quality. Up until last year, the Playboy Jazz Festival was infamous for its terrible sound and random balance
of instruments, but magically in 2015 it improved and this year it was perfect. The sound was never an issue.
The lineup of groups was eclectic to say the least. Four of the acts, the World Music of singer-guitarist Aurello, the repetitious salsa
of Los Van Van (whose singers were definitely having an off night), the rock/r&b singer Liv Warfield (whose single-entendre music
recalled Etta James) and the energetic pop performer Janelle Monae (who seemed unable to sing three straight notes in tune) were
difficult to sit through. None of those four acts should ever be booked at a jazz festival since they do not pretend to be playing jazz.
How many jazz groups get booked at World Music, r&b, salsa and pop festivals?
The other 16 performances varied in quality but offered some stirring moments. Unfortunately I missed the 20-minute set by the
LAUSD/Beyond the Bell All-City Jazz Band which opened the festival. After Aurello, John Beasley’s MONK’estra contributed some of
the most exciting music of the weekend. Imagine hearing Charles Mingus (or the Mingus Big Band) interpreting the music of
Thelonious Monk. The 16-piece orchestra was consistently explosive and Beasley’s arrangements and frameworks featured raging
ensembles, surprising changes of moods, and heated solos joined by high-powered “accompaniment.” It kept listeners constantly
guessing. Such Monk pieces as “Epistrophy,” “Ask Me Now,” and “Evidence” were among those given unique treatments. Of the many
soloists, trumpeter Brian Swartz and Bob Sheppard on soprano were standouts but there were certainly no weak links to this big band.
I even forgive a short and forgettable rap by one of the trumpeters. One suspects that Thelonious Monk would have enjoyed MONK’
estra’s inventive treatment of his music. I look forward to this colorful group’s upcoming debut recording.
Although that band was a difficult act to follow, 13-year old Joey Alexander (along with bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer
Ulysses Owens Jr.) impressed the audience with his mature playing and excellent technique. Alexander’s solos could pass for a top-
notch 30-year old. His set included John Coltrane’s “Resolution” (from A Love Supreme), “Giant Steps,” Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” and
an original jazz waltz along with a few other numbers. While one can joke that Alexander will sound better once he enters high school
(!), he is already a major pianist.
During the past few years Cecile McLorin Salvant has risen to the top of the huge field of female jazz singers. Her voice is distinctive
and beautiful, she can swing as hard as anyone, and she reaches back in time to come up with plenty of material that is often unlikely
and formerly forgotten. With fine support from her trio with pianist Aaron Diehl, Ms. Salvant explored such songs as Clarence
Williams’ 1926 piece “What’s The Matter Now,” an uptempo version of Bob Dorough’s “I’ve Got Just About Everything,” a slow and
passionate rendition of Cole Porter’s “So In Love,” “The Trolley Song” (which had Diehl imitating a trolley car), the powerful folk song
“John Henry” (performed by Leadbelly in the 1940s) “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” and Noel Coward’s “Mad About The Boy.”
No matter what the number, and she typically draws her repertoire from a 100-year period, Cecile McLorin Salvant makes each song
sound fresh and unpredictable by expertly using drama, occasional sarcasm, intensity and wit.
The great tenor-saxophonist Joshua Redman teamed up with the Bad Plus (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and
drummer David King) to perform consistently inventive modern post bop jazz. Naturally 7, a superior a capella septet, imitated
instruments perfectly including a remarkable vocal version of a rockish electric guitar. Unfortunately their focus is r&b/funk rather
than jazz and they were out of place at the festival. Actor-producer Seth McFarlane loves to sing standards and obscurities. His voice is
friendly and personable and he is good-humored about his limitations. McFarlane was joined by an all-star 18-piece big band at
Playboy, but inexcusably no room was left for a single solo, not even for such giants as trumpeter Carl Saunders, trombonist Andy
Martin, saxophonists Bob Sheppard and Adam Schroeder, pianist Tom Ranier and drummer Peter Erskine. While at first McFarlane
revived some excellent material including “Goody Goody,” “Why Should I Cry Over You” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Huggin’ And
Chalkin,’” the set soon declined with the inclusion of “Who’s Keeping Time With The Timekeeper’s Daughter When The Timekeeper’s
Out Keeping Time,” “Old MacDonald” and the theme song to “My Mother The Car!”
After Los Van Van’s endless set, Saturday concluded with Jon Batiste & Stay Human. Midway through his set, Batiste sat at the
piano and sounded excellent on a New Orleans blues. He should have started with that song and then left when it was finished for the
rest of the hour found his group sounding like an erratic garage band. The material (mostly originals) was weak, the musicians (other
than altoist Eddie Barbash who was generally excellent) stuck mostly to clichés, the one-chord vamps were endless, the ensembles
were rough, and the overall performances were a bit of a mess. Grace Kelly, normally an altoist, showed why she rarely plays baritone
and soprano. The less said about this set, the better.
Sunday started with the CSU Jazz A Band under the direction of Matt Harris. The college orchestra, performing the complex
harmonies of “Audacity” and a modernized “I Thought About You” with ease, could have been mistaken for a high-quality professional
big band. Trumpeter Austin Drake and tenor-saxophonist Eddie Pimental stood out among the soloists. The ensemble was then
fronted by British cabaret performer Anthony Strong who sang and played piano. The arrangements that he provided were sometimes
a bit corny but he was entertaining enough on such songs as “Whatever Lola Wants,” “Luck Be A Lady,” “The Gambling Man’s Blues”
and a rapid version of “Cheek To Cheek” that certainly challenged the teenage bassist who fared well.
The outstanding trumpeter Christian Scott (who goes by the name of Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah) led his sextet through an
intriguing set of original music that ranged from fusion to post bop and avant-funk. Scott, the excellent 21-year old flutist Elena
Pinderhughes and altoist Braxton Cook (who on one piece hinted at Eric Dolphy) all took excellent high-powered solos. The rhythm
section, which in addition to piano and bass had passionate playing from their drummer and a percussionist who often hit his cymbals
with sticks when he was not utilizing electronics, kept the music loud and forceful. It all worked well.
After Liv Warfield, Javon Jackson’s Sax Appeal was a welcome change of pace. Jackson and Jimmy Heath took fine tenor solos and
bassist David Williams was excellent in support but the magnificent pianist George Cables (in brilliant form) and the always tasteful and
inventive drummer Willie Jones III. often took honors. It was a pleasure getting to hear a straight-ahead version of Charlie Parker’s
“Confirmation” (some rare bebop at Playboy) along with an original that had similarities to “Autumn Leaves,” Heath’s soprano feature
on “Day Drea” an uptempo piece for Jackson, and a boogaloo. Most remarkably, the 89-year old Jimmy Heath (who first recorded 68
years ago, back in 1948) did not sit down once during the set, even during Jackson’s feature!
Altoist Donald Harrison, billed as Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. and the Congo Nation-New Orleans Cultural Group, tried to
educate the audience about the heritage of New Orleans. He started off with a high energy piece in which he played quite free. Harrison’
s wide-ranging set included a relatively straight ahead “Take The ‘A’ Train” and a surprising romp on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”
He also sang (including on “Sweet Liza Jane”) and played congas, sometimes welcoming the participation of a few colorful dancers who
were dressed as if they had come straight from Mardi Gras.
One of the most satisfying sets of the weekend was Robert Cray’s tribute to B.B. King. Cray emulated King’s vocal style a bit on “3 O’
Clock In The Morning” and “Rock Me Baby,” with the latter featuring fine solos from trumpeter Steve Madaio and tenor-saxophonist
Trevor Lawrence. Guest guitarist-singer Sonny Landreth was in top form on “I’ve Got A Mind To Ramble” and an exciting version of
“Woke Up This Morning” that went through several different grooves and had hot riffing from the horns. However Cray’s other guest,
guitarist-singer Roy Gaines, completely stole the show. His version of ‘How Blue Can You Get” featured his powerful guitar playing and
at one point he played while holding his guitar over his head. He also swung hard on a classic version of “Everyday I Have The Blues,”
showing that he is a real crowd pleaser in addition to being a superior musician.
Fourplay, comprised of keyboardist Bob James, guitarist Chuck Loeb, bassist-singer Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason, are
celebrating their 25th year as a group. Their brand of melodic feel-good music, which included such songs as “Gentle Giant,” “101
Westbound” (dedicated to the Hollywood Freeway) and “Third Degree,” is best seen live rather than heard on records. In concert the
musicians challenge each other a bit, particularly during their tradeoffs, and it was a pleasing performance.
After an endless set by Janelle Monae, the Playboy Jazz Festival finished on a happy level with the Pete Escovedo Orchestra. The
mutual love by Escovedo and his children (Juan, Peter and Sheila E.) is obvious, even as they challenge each other on drums and
percussion. With a fine horn section that included lead trumpeter Mike McGuffey and Justo Almario on reeds, the orchestra
performed fun music that was modern, rhythmic and often infectious. At one point the four Escovedos played various shakers
together and another time the three “kids” battled it out on congas while a beaming Pete sang.
Hopefully next year it will not be deemed necessary to have so many nonjazz groups performing at the Playboy Jazz Festival. With
creative booking of a wide variety of jazz artists (Dixieland, swing and the avant-garde should be represented), the Hollywood Bowl
would be just as crowded and the party would certainly not suffer.