The Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl has become a Southern California Father's Day tradition, with a lineup of Grammy-Award winning musicians and bright, promising newcomers.
Percussionist and band leader Pancho Sanchez with his Latin Jazz Band closes the Saturday show, not an easy feat after such a long, hot day, and following Boney James, to boot. Not wanting to be stuck in the exiting Bowl traffic, some festival goers at this point begin to bail. Known for his Afro-Cuban rhythms and hard-driving sound, Sanchez, joined by legendary tenor sax and flutist James Moody, does not disappoint the crowd that stays with him to the end.
The Playboy Jazz Festival is known for identifying upcoming talent. Debuting this 25th year are twenty-three-year-old Lizz Wright, and Bahia, Brazil's Daniela Mercury, definitely two to watch.
Vocalist and songwriter Lizz Wright, already has a strong following in New York and her home town, Atlanta. Wearing an elegant spaghetti-strap gown of ivory organza with a leaf motif, she sings, 'Lead the Way' from her new debut album, "Salt". Backed by a quartet, Wright knows how to present a tune with a simplicity that showcases her strong talent, reminding us of the musician who said, "It's not what you play, it's what you leave out." Half way through her performance she discards her high heels to finish her set comfortably barefoot. A resonant alto, her style is gospel-influenced. She sings 'Silence' a cappella, and closes with the title song of her debut album, 'Salt', both original compositions by the young lady.
By contrast, Daniela Mercury, in a black vinyl bra dress, is backed by an eight-piece band and three dancers. In Portuguese, she sings her fusion of Afro-Brazilian samba, rock, reggae, hip-hop, soul and techno, in her swinging Bahian axé street rhythm style. Her strong voice and skillful phrasing lend new energy to Xavier Cugat's classic, 'Brazil'.
Also debuting at this year's Playboy Jazz Festival were notables such as the Dave Holland Quintet, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bobby Rodriguez' 21-piece Salsa Orchestra, and Boz Scaggs.
Grammy-Award-winning leader, bassist, cellist and composer Dave Holland has assembled what he calls his "dream band": saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson. Influenced by Western classical composers, Holland has played or collaborated with all the greats over a 30-plus year career, and with this quintet executes complex rhythms and melodies with professional confidence.
The gospel appeal of the Blind Boys of Alabama, recently inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame, immediately wins over the jazz crowd. A version of 'House of the Rising Sun' includes an intricately woven chorus of 'Amazing Grace'. Nattily dressed in white shirts or turtlenecks and gray suits, they get the audience clapping and waving white napkins, Kleenex, and tee shirts, with their song repeating the chorus, "Got Stuck". Jimmy Carter's 'Stand Up - Feel Good' lyrics continue to escalate audience enthusiasm. On a lengthy closing vocal note, Carter leans backward as if to fall, is caught in the arms of his fellows, returns upright and never misses a breath on the note. An impressed audience cheers and waves more napkins, and the televised screens focus not on Carter, but on Hugh Hefner's blond girlfriend, bouncing and waving.
Bobby Rodriguez is dressed entirely in white except for his stars and stripes vest, glittering in the afternoon sunlight. President of the Hispanic Musicians Association, Inc., he's proud of his Latin jazz roots.
"East LA has made it to the Hollywood Bowl," he quips. "What's this world coming to?"
Rodriguez performs several songs from his latest release, "Trumpet Talk". Taking a breath, he says, "We Played salsa, cha cha, bossa nova, and what you don't know started in East LA, the marengue." Talking about his home neighborhood, he laughs. "I've played around the world - I'm a Grammy Award-winning trumpeter from East LA, and still my mom says, 'When are you gonna get a real job?'"
Rodriguez introduces his closing blues number: "Everyone knows the blues were born on Rosarita." The band takes up the blues beat and he begins, "I was born in East LA, down on the corner of Bonnie Beach and Albert Street," He struts the walk, the hip Spanish street jargon, and ends with "only in East LA, because that's where this Latino learned how to play."
Introducing Boz Scaggs, Cos says simply, "Sit back, relax and have some private moments with Mr. Boz Scaggs!" A performer who began his career more then thirty years go with the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs attracts a crossover audience from pop to jazz. He opens with the standards, 'It Could Happen to You', 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' and 'But Not For Me'. 'You Don't Know What Love Is' features songstress Monet. He satisfies longtime fans with 'Low Down', and announces the title track to his new Virgin Records CD "But Beautiful", a repertoire of standards that reflect his jazz side.
Also debuting this year was The New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, an ensemble of veterans of different musical styles from Latin, rock, funk, zydeco, Cajun, bluegrass and even classical. "It's a childhood dream to be here at the Hollywood Bowl," says accordionist Glenn Hartman. He introduces the title track of the new CD: "Borvis". This is your Yiddish word-for-the-day, meaning "barefoot".
It's the eighth appearance of Bill Cosby's gathering of all-star musicians, billed as Cos of Good Music VIII. The septet includes Dwayne Burno, bass; Ndugu Chancler, drums; Pete Christlieb, tenor saxophone; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Harold Mabern, piano; and the youthful Keischa Potter (a Cosby discovery) on alto saxophone. Wearing a tee shirt reading "Swarthmore Academics", Cosby begins to conduct, guiding each musician in a solo, then addition to the others, as if he himself were playing a musical instrument. With what appeared to be wild gesticulation he creates a well-orchestrated musical comedy bit. Sunglasses in place, Cos sits down at a drumset sporting the Playboy logo on the front head of the bass, and plays Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust' and 'I Can't Get Started With You'.
Then Cos brings on a red-haired 13-year-old in a peach satin pantsuit "to sing a song for her father". Renée Olstead, star of CBS' 'Still Standing', sings 'At Last', and 17,000 jazz fans stand and cheer wildly with respect for such a powerfully emoting voice from one so young. It takes true intonation to stay on key in a ballad that slow, and she did it with ease.
Producer George Wein: "The only way to do a contemporary festival and still play good music is to mix things up. We try to put on a program that has musical credibility - whatever label you might apply to some of the acts - as long as it has commercial appeal. That's how you stay in the festival business."
This explains the presence of Los Hombres Calientes, Ozomatli, and Fanfare Ciocarlia.
Los Hombres Calientes, featuring percussionist Bill Summers & trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, performed 'Jordue', garnering Mayfield a standing ovation and much white-napkin waving. The group includes vocalist Yvette Summers, bassist Edwin Livingston, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, drums, Victor Atkins, piano. Accomplished musicians all, their Latin jazz reflects a strong Afro-Cuban influence. A New Orleans-based jazz group, they record on the jazz, brass and funk label, Basin Street Records.
Jazz purists don't know what to make of the tenet Ozomatli. Rather than already being placed on the revolving stage, these musicians come onstage in a traditional samba line with which they open every live performance. The group sings in Spanish and raps in English. The musicians include a deejay with two turntables. It's a rhythmic amalgamation of hip-hop, salsa, ska, funk and jazz, putting the audience in a trace-like state of weaving and waving to the beat. The Harlem globetrotter-like antics of Justin "Niño" Porée playing a giant gourd are particularly entertaining.
Fanfare Ciocarlia is a brass and woodwind ensemble of twelve Romany Gypsy musicians. Their play ranges from soulful to fast-paced notes speeding up and down the scales at impressive tempos. Traditional rhythms from Turkey, Bulgaria, and Macedonia are played on horns, clarinets, and timpani. A jazz influence is clear when one member scats the notes. Their art - and instruments - have been handed down from generation to generation, with no sheet music. Their fiery staccatos are punctuated with the occasional gypsy cry, and long-haired, barefoot gypsy dancer, Lisa, performs traditional dances with wild abandon, creating a red satin whirl across the stage.
Cosby: "Ladies and gentlemen, for this twenty-fifth anniversary we have a special message for you from Mr. Hugh Hefner."
The man himself, wearing a shirt he designed of Playboy magazine covers, keeps his words simple, thanking "Cos", producer George Wein, and "all the musicians, and most of all - you for being here."
Whether you come for the food, the camaraderie, the weather, your favorite musical group, or perhaps to catch a glimpse of a Playmate, the annual Playboy Jazz Festival remains an event like no other. - By Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Correspondent.