|THE 2017 PLAYBOY JAZZ FESTIVAL
The 39th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, like the first 38, took place over a June weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. The pair of eight-hour
concerts featured 20 different groups covering a wide variety of music. Saturday had a much higher percentage of creative artists than usual,
with eight of the ten groups (nine if one counts the blues of Taj Mahal & Keb Mo’) being jazz ensembles while Sunday was down to a more
typical five. Having sat through Playboy marathons where only three of the artists could be called jazz, 2017 boasted a much stronger lineup
George Lopez did an excellent job as emcee all weekend, clearly enjoying the music and ad-libbing jokes that fit the situation. Playboy began on
Saturday at 3 p.m. with the CSULB Pacific Standard Time Vocal Jazz Ensemble. 11 young singers were joined by a four-piece rhythm section,
on five songs that ranged from Earth, Wind and Fire to Blossom Dearie; the closing “Caravan” was the strongest performance. The ensembles
were clean and swinging although there were no individual heroics beyond Zane Johnson’s fine guitar solos.
The California Honeydrops displayed versatility and potential during a set that mixed together Johnny Bones’ early 1950s honking tenor with
New Orleans r&b grooves and 1960s soul organ. The music was at its best when the leader, singer-guitarist Lech Wierzynski, switched to
trumpet and interacted with Bones. There was an excess of singing by the good-natured Wierzynski (although the background vocals by
members of the group were excellent) and one wished that the horns had more of an opportunity to cut loose. While there should be half as
many vocals, the California Honeydrops proved to be an enjoyable party band.
The highpoint of Saturday and arguably the entire festival was provided by the Django Festival All Stars. The musicians (all from France) did
their interpretations of the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli swing tradition. Violinist Pierre Blanchard played well (including on what
might have been the first version of “Tea For Two” ever heard at the Playboy Jazz Festival) as did rhythm guitarist DouDou Cuillerier and
bassist Antonio Licusati. Accordionist Ludovic Beier took some hot solos, doubling on the accordina which is a miniature variation of his
accordion that he blew into. However the show stoppers were acoustic guitarists Samson and Amati Schmitt. On originals and “Minor Swing,”
the brothers challenged each other with virtuosic runs, beautiful tones and rapid ideas. Their hard-swinging music was both inspiring and a
From three guitarists, the next group (a tribute to Bobby Hutcherson) had four vibraphonists who were heard on two sets of vibes, marimba
and (in Roy Ayers’ case) electric vibraphone. Stefan Harris and Warren Wolf, two of the finest vibraphonists to emerge during the past 20
years, were the main stars during a performance that also featured Ayers, young vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Patrice Rushen, bassist
Joshua Crumbly and drummer Eric Harland. The group mostly interpreted Hutcherson originals (including “Highway One” and “Little B’s
Poem”) and, although the inclusion of a bebop standard with some heated trading off would have been welcome, the set was quite satisfying
and a real vibes summit.
The combination of Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ brought out the best in both bluesmen. Starting off with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” their
collaboration ranged from lowdown blues to r&b, folk music and back to blues again. The co-leaders were well featured as singers and guitarists
with Mahal also featured on banjo. It was particularly rewarding hearing Keb’ Mo’ play more blues than usual. Their rousing closer won over
Hudson is an all-star quartet comprised of guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack
DeJohnette. While their CD, which features originals along with their jazz transformations of pop songs, is fine, the group has grown quite a bit
since then. It was fascinating watching Medeski get personal and unusual sounds out of his keyboards. Hudson’s music on one selection sounded
like Bitches Brew-era fusion but also included post bop, a countryish jam, some avant-funk, and a closing bebop blues. The latter gave one a
rare opportunity to hear DeJohnette swinging a la Art Blakey or Tony Williams. If Scofield had a tone closer to Joe Pass’ than his own classic
sound (which is often rockish), his connections to Charlie Parker and bebop would be more obvious. The hour by Hudson was filled with
inventive solos and excitement.
Saturday’s one departure from jazz and blues was r&b singer Corinne Bailey who displayed an appealing voice but was certainly out of place.
Jacob Collier is an unusual performer to say the least. By using electronics, he switched between vocals, guitar, piano, bass and drums, stating
patterns that were repeated during dense ensembles. At various points he stood onstage, briefly dancing to the music that he had just created.
Sometimes Collier soloed on top of the patterns while on other occasions he added his solo to the ensemble of the “band.” He obviously pushed
buttons or switches to add or subtract from the music since many of the individual patterns eventually disappeared or were replaced, but it
was difficult to see it actually being done. Collier is impressive on each of the instruments and, although his material could have been a little
more memorable, he was able to overcome the novelty element of this display. It will be very interesting to see where he goes from here.
Arturo Sandoval, one of the greatest trumpeters of the past 40 years, led his Latin Big Band through a rousing set. Their repertoire included
“The Peanut Vendor,” a Perez Prado mambo, a romantic ballad, “Mambo #5,” a feature for the leader on piano, and several Cuban numbers. In
addition to the 14 horns (including a screaming trumpet section led by Wayne Bergeron), the group had an eight-piece rhythm section with
congas, timbales and guest Andy Garcia on bongos. On “Maynard and Waynard” (originally written by Bergeron for Maynard Ferguson), its
composer held his own in a frequently explosive trumpet battle with Sandoval. There was no letup in the stirring music. Whether on trumpet
(he is still very much in his prime), piano or timbales, Arturo Sandoval remains one of the most exciting musicians in jazz today.
Saturday ended with Marcus Miller’s group. The great electric bassist started off with his classic reworking of “Come Together” and he also
played a funky rendition of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” with his quintet which included altoist Alex Han. The second half of Miller’s hour was a
tribute to the late Al Jarreau but it was much less interesting. It ignored Jarreau’s jazz roots and was comprised primarily of his r&b and pp
hits, featuring Rahsaan Patterson on vocals.
Sunday arrived very soon with George Lopez saying “I feel like I never left.” While much of Saturday’s music was on the level one would expect
at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Sunday was an eccentric grab-bag that was more typical of Playboy. The LAUSD/Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz
Band fared well during a boppish set that included “Donna Lee” and “Doxy.” The Hamilton de Holanda trio (consisting of the leader on ten-
string mandolin, Vitor Goncalves doubling on piano and accordion, and bassist Or Bareket) started out with some Brazilian swing. They soon
switched to other idioms including their version of a Thelonious Monk ballad, a 32-bar piece called the “Samba Blues” (which was actually not
a samba nor a blues), some Jobim, World Music, and several classical-oriented works. De Holanda’s technique was quite impressive and the
trio was tight.
The DIVA Jazz Orchestra has been led by drummer Sherrie Maricle for over 25 years. Arguably its finest edition was featured at Playboy.
Starting with a rousing version of “I Love Being Here With You” (which had the musicians surprisingly singing its title near the end of their
rendition), they performed their swinging and colorful arrangements of “Felicidade,” “Pennies From Heaven” (featuring baritonist Leigh
Pilzer and the outstanding bassist Noriko Ueda), “Did’Ja Do That” (which had a tenor battle by Roxy Coss and Janelle Reichman), Tommy
Newsome’s “TPN Blues” (great plunger work by trumpeter Barbara Laronga and trombonist Jennifer Krupa), and an uptempo “Get Me To The
Church On Time.” Throughout the music and particularly on the latter, Maricle staked her claim as one of the great big band drummers.
With additional top-notch soloists in altoist Scheila Gonzalez and trumpeter Jami Dauber plus Janelle Reichman doubling on clarinet, DIVA
put on a memorable performance that ranked at the top with those of the Django All Stars and Arturo Sandoval..
Drummer Carl Allen with “The Art Of Elvin” paid tribute to the great Elvin Jones. His quintet, which included trumpeter Freddie Hendrix,
tenor-saxophonist Keith Loftis, pianist Donald Vega and bassist Yasushi Nakamura, was filled with strong hard bop soloists. Hendrix’s solos
were often blazing, Loftis was passionate, and Vega on “One By One” (which is actually associated with Art Blakey rather than Elvin) showed
that he had Bobby Timmons’ style down perfectly. It was an outstanding set of high quality jazz. In contrast, the music played by keyboardist
Cory Henry’s Funk Apostles (a five-piece rhythm section and two female singers) was primarily funk and r&b, serving as background music
for the partying crowd.
Altoist Kenny Garrett led his hard-driving quintet (featuring the fine pianist Vernell Brown) through some original multi-sectioned works. As
usual, Garrett hit every note with intensity and purpose while his rhythm section (with percussionist Rudy Bird) was both tight and loose.
The JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble under the artistic direction of Pat Taylor had been advertised as debuting a world premiere collaboration
with Garrett, but the ten dancers were only on one number (which had a boogaloo rhythm) and did not have an opportunity to make much of
Gregory Porter, who looks like a superstar, put on a typically impressive show. To his credit, no matter how popular he becomes, he utilizes
what is essentially an avant-garde quartet. The solos of tenor-saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and pianist Chip Crawford consistently took the
music outside. Porter, who had the audience from the first note, was in top form on such originals as “On My Way To Harlem,” “Take Me To
The Alley” and “Don’t Lose Your Steam.” A masterful storyteller whose philosophical lyrics show that he is both a dreamer and a realist, Porter
has a voice that has the warmth and soul of Nat King Cole and Bill Withers. With his band pushing him, he scatted a bit, stretched himself,
and always got his message across.
The Playboy Jazz Festival basically ended with Gregory Porter although it still had three hours to go. Miles Mosley and the West Coast Get
Down, despite getting a lot of attention as a “new thing” in jazz, proved to be mostly a showcase for the leader’s vocals and bass solos. Their
music was passionate but primarily a funky brand of poppish rock. Lalah Hathaway mostly stuck to her usual r&b but, on her final song, she
scatted for a long stretch over a vamp. Hathaway showed that she could sing jazz if she wanted to, even imitating Louis Armstrong briefly. She
should do this more often! Unfortunately Playboy ended on a definite down note with Common, a rapper who the less said of the better. Other
than having him empty out the Hollywood Bowl, what was the logic in booking him at Playboy?
Despite the ending, this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival was a lot of fun and well worth attending, particularly Saturday. It makes one look
forward to next year’s 40th event.