Woods Among the Shining Stars at Playboy Jazz Festival
If there’s one thing the Playboy Jazz Festival audience has come to expect, it’s novelty—and lots of it. The crowd that fills the Hollywood Bowl each Father’s Day weekend is typically fed more than a few stage surprises to keep its attention from drifting. That’s only natural: Eight hours of music beneath the sunny skies of Southern California could wear out the even most discerning listeners.
Producer Darlene Chan knows this well, and her Festival Productions office kept the 35th edition of the festival (held June 15–16) running smoothly, at a fast pace and with plenty of wild cards and variety.
The Brubeck Brothers played a finely wrought set of their iconic father’s music that failed to ignite much reaction. Gregory Porter’s jazz-influenced vocals went over well, but Pedrito Martinez’s dance group, with its expertly executed turns and leaps, had the unenviable task of opening the weekend to a largely empty Bowl.
Hugh Masekela’s tepid flugelhorn didn’t add much to Angélique Kidjo’s animated set except name value, but she grabbed the audience immediately. Elsewhere, it was hard to believe that Natural 7’s sounds were all made by human voices, and with this performance the energetic a cappella group cemented its status as a PJF favorite. The set got even livelier when Herbie Hancock’s tasty Roland guitar synthesizer was added to the mix.
Tenor saxophonist James Carter joined conguero Poncho Sanchez for a quick swipe at “Oleo,” providing brief but convincing evidence that these two could make a fine album together. Keyboardist Robert Glasper’s electronic gimmickry didn’t disguise his band’s fine musicianship, but a Dianne Reeves walk-on unfortunately made for musical cheese.
Novelties notwithstanding, good music abounded. Alto saxophonist Grace Kelly played a potent Saturday afternoon set of standards and originals. It was all the more impressive in the company of her featured guest, veteran alto saxophonist Phil Woods, and his longtime ace drummer Bill Goodwin. It’s well known that Woods has ongoing health problems, but Kelly wasn’t dealing in noblesse oblige here. She played hard and brisk, though tunefully, as she gave no quarter. Kelly’s composition “Man With The Hat” was a nod to her mentor. (That tune served as the title track to a 2011 album that Kelly and Woods recorded together.)
Kelly’s band included bassist Evan Gregory and Josh Nelson, the best of Los Angeles’ young jazz pianists. They melded beautifully with Goodwin, who imparts as much feel as he does timekeeping. Though it’s surely not the first time he’s played there, Goodwin probably smiled at the thought that he grew up not far from the Bowl.
Either Woods had a very good day or Kelly brought his game up. Though seated, he blew forcefully, seeming to take each of her opening solos as a personal challenge. Like all of the masters, he can say more with less, and he made an impressive contribution to her set.
Kelly, 21, has absorbed much of Woods’ angularity and upper-register singing, but she is an artist determined to find her own path. Yes, she’s an ingénue who’s come far in a short time and has much to learn. But Kelly’s solid grounding and portent are as laudable as anything else about her.
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra held the orchestral jazz banner high. They each exemplify the L.A. big band renaissance, with no overlapping personnel. On Saturday, Goodwin unveiled a new rearrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” with up-to-date rhythmic alterations and emphasis on slow blues passages. In general, the Phat Band swung for the fences, playing plenty of forte dynamics and blazing tempos. Wayne Bergeron’s sterling lead trumpet, Eric Marienthal’s vibrant alto sax and Andy Martin’s sure-footed trombone are just a few of this outfit’s embarrassment of musical riches.
On Sunday, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra presented a musical valentine to Quincy Jones, seated in a nearby box. Conductor/bassist John Clayton serenaded Q with some of his best-known compositions in new charts and played Jones’ big band charts. Hubert Laws, whose flute graced some of the original Jones classics, such as “Soul Bossa” and “Killer Joe,” provided additional virtuosity to Clayton’s expert orchestrations. Indeed, Laws’ contributions further embellished the solid-gold musicianship of this band. Though scheduled singer Patti Austin was unable to appear, Jones seemed quite pleased with the program.
With his much-anticipated bow as the festival announcer, comedian George Lopez made one appreciate former master of ceremonies Bill Cosby all the more. Sure, Cos was indulged yearly with his own set of musical all-stars, whom he tinkered with needlessly. But as host, he deftly announced the players, unless he had to vamp for time or rib Angelenos by recounting the triumphs of Philadelphia’s major-league sports teams. Lopez needs to learn that the PJF crowd is not there to listen to his shtick, see him dance or hear him sing. Cosby’s “hit-git-and-split” ethos remains the PJF standard.
— Kirk Silsbee