For the first time in its 40-year history, the Playboy Jazz Festival returned to the Hollywood Bowl without its founder, Hugh Hefner, who passed away in September at the age of 91. Apart from a brief tribute delivered by his son Cooper, it was business as usual for the venerable two-day event at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
The festival sometimes can feel like it’s jazz in name only; this year, soul singer Anthony Hamilton and venerable funk group Tower of Power closed out Saturday and Sunday, respectively. But before they brought their more mainstream sounds to the stage, Playboy Jazz served up an admirably eclectic lineup, highlighted by some forward-thinking young jazz ensembles (Kneebody, Snarky Puppy), living legends (Ramsey Lewis, Charles Lloyd, Lee Ritenour) and crowd-pleasing newcomers (pianist Matthew Whitaker, whose trio was a Saturday afternoon highlight).
The lineup was especially strong on rising stars from Latin America, starting with Monsieur Periné, a Colombian ensemble whose insouciant mix of cumbia, gypsy jazz and French chanson pop got the Saturday crowd up and dancing. Its set was followed by 26-year-old Havana singer Daymé Arocena, who came across as an Afro-Cuban Ella Fitzgerald, scat-singing over her trio’s swaying rhumbas and cha-cha-chas, and radiating charisma as she exhorted the audience to sing along to her “Don’t Unplug My Body,” which lured the event’s MC, George Lopez, out from the wings for an impromptu slow dance with the singer.
Following Arocena was an even more impressive performer, and arguably the highlight of the entire festival: Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda, who brings a level of imagination and athleticism to his instrument that is frequently jaw-dropping. His special guest for the set, French harmonica player Grégoire Malet, seemed to coax ever more thrillingly percussive runs from Castaneda, as the two virtuosos traded solos, with trombonist Marshall Gilkes and percussionist Rodrigo Villalon’s occasionally weighing in with their own Latin jazz flourishes. But the harpist saved his most gorgeous work for a solo piece, “Jesus de Nazareth,” that silenced the chatty crowd with its luminous grace.
Saturday’s two most seasoned jazz acts, the Miles Electric Band (a tribute to Davis’ fusion years, featuring several of his latter-day sidemen) and guitarist Lee Ritenour’s bluesy quartet with keyboardist Dave Grusin, delivered pleasant but unremarkable sets, as did the hoary Count Basie Orchestra, which helped Sunday afternoon patrons find their seats to the familiar strains of “April in Paris” and “In the Wee Small Hours.” After that, the veterans got more interesting—starting with the Hubtones, an 80th birthday tribute to late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, featuring an all-star lineup of horn players including Randy Brecker, Nicholas Payton, David Weiss and Jeremy Pelt (pulling double duty after playing the lead role in the Miles Electric Band).
Focusing on Hubbard compositions from his ’60s catalog, the quartet of trumpeters, with stellar backing by pianist Benny Green, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Roy McCurdy, traded solos that paid homage to Hubbard’s lyrical, yet forceful, style while still leaving room for each player’s individual strengths. As robust as ever at 72, Brecker was the standout, imparting a rich, almost saxophone-like tone to the opening phrases of his solo on “Up Jumped Spring” and unleashing some dizzyingly technical runs and piercing high notes on “D Minor Mint.” But every soloist shone at times—especially Pelt, whose swagger and tone came closest to emulating Hubbard’s, and Green, who echoed McCoy Tyner’s early work with Hubbard in his blues-informed solos and comps.
After an occasionally rambling, but often fascinating, set by tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his group the Marvels, with Lucinda Williams providing an earthy presence on guest vocals, 83-year-old Ramsey Lewis took the stage with his quintet. Lewis, who has announced he’ll retire at the end of 2018, remains a polarizing figure in jazz circles to this day, viewed by some as a soul-jazz pioneer and others as a pop lightweight. But on Sunday night, none of that mattered, as he delivered a rollicking, age-defying set.
Lewis seemed largely uninterested in revisiting his most famous, mid-’60s period, instead focusing on originals and covers from the ’70s. After opening with “Tequila Mockingbird,” the breezy title track from the 1977 album he recorded with members of Earth, Wind and Fire, the pianist teasingly told the audience, “I don’t know if you’re all ready for this. We’re gonna see.” He then launched into a medley of covers that were his set’s highlights: a stately version of The Stylistics’ 1972 Philly soul ballad “Betcha By Golly, Wow” and a confidently funky take on Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City.” Both had the crowd singing along — and from there, Lewis had them in the palm of his hand, leading his excellent band through a variety of styles, from blues to rhumba to boogie-woogie.
Lewis’ set demonstrated, in convincing fashion, why he’s outlasted his critics—an observation that also could be made of the Playboy Jazz Festival itself, which remains a smartly programmed showcase for its titular genre, despite its more pop-minded headliners.
The Playboy Jazz Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary at the Hollywood Bowl this year, and since its inauguration, much has changed. The lineup in 1979, as listed in the Los Angeles Times on June 2 of that year, included Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Harold Land, and a special tribute to Charles Mingus featuring Joni Mitchell on the first day; Lionel Hampton, Willie Bobo, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, and Weather Report on day two. Bill Cosby was the master of ceremonies for both days.
In 2018, comedian George Lopez returned for his fifth year as MC, and mainstream jazz wasn’t highlighted as much as it was back in the day. Nonetheless, there were some memorable moments in that department. 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/MD David Weiss (who frequently worked with Hubbard in the latter’s final years). Pianist Benny Green, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Roy McCurdy provided expert support during sublime renderings of Hubbard’s classics, including “Up Jumped Spring,” “Birdlike,” and the much-sampled “Red Clay” as the finale.
As always, the venerable 18-piece Count Basie Orchestra, now directed by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, 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 the immortal “April in Paris” highlighted their fast-paced set. Guitarist and vocalist Roy Gaines entertainingly injected T-Bone Walker and B.B. King-styled blues into big-band jazz, singing “Let’s Have a Natural Ball” and “Bluesman For Life” while wailing away with his players.
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels were both bluesy and edgy, as the reed master called on the talents of guitarists Bill Frisell and Stuart Mathis, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland. During their jam-like version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” the bandleader and Frisell interweaved creatively as the other players supplied riveting rhythmic and textural layers. Alt-country singer Lucinda Williams, who appears on the band’s upcoming CD Vanished Gardens, submerged the mood with sullen and poetic lyrics for the album’s title track and “Ventura,” while also injecting her own raucous “Joy.”
Parlor Social, an L.A.-based 15-person unit, offered a time-warp blend of Harlem Renaissance music and hip-hop. 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 10-piece Miles Electric Band—headed by the legendary trumpeter’s nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn—came out with a hard-hitting fusion set highlighted by blazing solos from guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight and Pelt on trumpet. Interestingly, along with obvious choices like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” the band’s segment also included some non-fusion Davis pieces, such as “Nefertiti” and “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
Los Angeles’ Kneebody, with Ben Wendel playing sax, Shaine Endsley on trumpet, Adam Benjamin on keyboards, Kaveh Rastegar on bass, and Nate Wood playing drums, were an intriguing 21st-century version of fusion. Their emphasis was squarely on rhythm and ensemble 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 suggested a mixture of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Stevie Wonder, and Jimmy Smith. Backed by guitarist Edward Morcaldi III and drummer Sipho Kunene, Whitaker charmed the audience with lively interpretations of “More Than Yesterday,” “Mas Quenada” and Wonder’s “As.” Veteran ivory-player Ramsey Lewis was more smoot; he and his quintet—keyboardist Tim Grant, guitarist Henry Johnson, drummer Charles Heath, and bassist Joshua Ramos—reprised his “The In Crowd,” the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” Wonder’s “Living for the City,” and “Sun Goddess,” which Lewis originally recorded with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White.
Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour reunited for a set of equally polished contemporary numbers, with Melvin Davis playing bass and Ritenour’s son Wes on drums. They served up a contemporary version of “Stolen Moments” with the bassist scatting, and also offered a short tribute to Al Jarreau. Grusin played a piano solo piece for June birthdays, including his own, while guitarist Ritenour shone on Rufus’ funky “You Got the Love.” Another anniversary besides the festival’s was celebrated on the second day: headliner Tower of Power’s 50th, which coincided with the release of the band’s new album, Soul Side of Town. Marcus Scott delivered stirring singing with the mighty nine-piece band’s trademark horns on “You Ought to Be Havin’ Fun,” “What Is Hip,” and the ballad “You’re Still a Young Man,” dedicated to Lopez.
Latin music has always been well represented at the PJF, and this year Richard Bona and his Mandekan Cubano septet were the strongest performers in that regard. Bona charismatically combined Cuban music with African spirit to get many in the crowd dancing. Among the pieces they played 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 and formerly a member of Jane Bunnett’s all-female group Maqueque, sang powerfully in English and Spanish with her trio of pianist Jorge Luis Lagarza, bassist Rafael Aldama, and drummer Marcos Morales. Highlights included the dramatic “Eleggua,” the cha-cha “Lo Que Fue,” and the funky “Todo Por Amor.”
Fast-emerging Latin Grammy-winning octet Monsieur Periné from Colombia 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 a category all its own was harpist Edmar Castañeda’s quartet, with trombonist Marshall Gilkes, drummer Rodrigo Villalon, and guest harmonica master Grégoire Maret. The Colombian native was a force in performance, intensely weaving textures and riffs for far-reaching numbers, including the solo piece “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Clearly not related to jazz in the least were modern soul performers Jazmine Sullivan and Anthony Hamilton. Based on the differences between this year’s PJF and the first, it seems safe to predict that the 50th Playboy Jazz Festival will continue to be unpredictable.