Playboy Jazz Festival 2003

Actor-comedian-jazz aficionado extraordinaire Bill Cosby's the Cos of Good Music VIII grandly accentuated the 25th edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Initially, when the festival emcee conceived his dream all-star group for the event eight years ago, it seemed like a self-indulgent means to allow him to perform: playing light percussion and doing some minor band leading. These days, though, Cos is fully involved with the band, and he even has a little drum kit he plays throughout to supplement Ndugu Chancler's work. That's not really necessary, of course, but the point is that Cos has developed some chops of his own.


Dave Brubeck

He needed them too, because this group was hard swinging and wasn't taking any prisoners. Bottom line: this group came to play. The all-star ensemble included top veterans, such as tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb, drummer Chancler, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, bassist Dwayne Burno, pianist Harold Mabern and alto saxophonist Keschia Potter. They opened with the spirited bebop classic "In Walked Bud" featuring Christlieb's resonating tenor, Henderson's triumphant bursts, along with Maben and Potter playing more somberly. Turning down the intensity a bit, Cos' group rendered "What a Little Moonlight Will do," which was highlighted by Hutcherson's trademark effervescent style. Mabern also was prominently featured along with Christlieb and Henderson, adding tangy accents that contributed to all the players collectively garnering strong audience response.

Potter, a rising star on the Southern California jazz scene, rose to the occasion by way of the standard "I Can't Get Started (Without You)." Through astounding, understated and mature playing, she too generated a buzz throughout the crowd. Cos took a break from his mini kit and approvingly looked on like a proud father, which he is, but not to her. Since it was actually Father's Day, the eight-piece band was in effect his gift to himself.

Just the same, he had a surprise up his sleeve that was indeed a present for all. It came in the way of 13-year old singer, Renee Olstead. The darling redhead won the bowl's heart and admiration--despite being in the company of the stellar players--and only did one song. But that was more than enough. Her opening a capella verse of "At Last," popularized by Etta James, literally had the bowl audience in suspended motion, before the band joined in for elegant accompaniment. This girl not old enough to drive has a colossal voice. Equally impressive, she has soul and poise that nicely complements her raw talent. After drawing a standing ovation, without a doubt she'll be back one day to do a full set. Cosby joked as she left, "Since she's only 13, she only knows one song."

Saturday featured conguero Poncho Sanchez and his mighty Latin jazz ensemble with the legendary James Moody as his special guest. Unfortunately, this headlining set didn't live up to expectations. Moody only did two numbers with them, and for the most part his playing was under amplified. That sadly made it hard to discern him from the group. For Lester Young's "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid," however, Moody sounded better. The tune was essentially a hard-bop-meets-Latin-jazz encounter that was highlighted by George Ortiz's timbale solo. Additionally, the endearing legend didn't lend his highly appealing singing to the set, even though the bandleader did for the Chano Pozo number "Tin Tin Deo," and later for James Brown's R&B hit "Out-a-site." It's the title track for Sanchez's upcoming CD, which is adorned by Moody, Ray Charles and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame. Overall, generating interest in Ponchez's new recording seemed to be his main objective throughout his fast-paced, six-number set, which nevertheless aroused some audience members to do some partying.

Other mainstream highlights worth mentioning were Al Jarreau and Dave Brubeck's quartet doing "Take Five" together. When the silver-maned Brubeck, announced that Jarreau was joining his group to do probably jazz's most popular song, the audience erupted. That's not an easy feat, since they're typically more interested in chatting while consuming the powerful libations and scrumptious food that have become synonymous with the event. But when the vocalist zestfully scatted away, he invoked memories of his initial renditions of the tune that propelled him to popularity 25 years ago. For grandmaster Brubeck, who originally played Paul Desmond's classic in 1959, presently with alto saxophonist Bobby Militello doing soaring solo honors, he cannot ever do a concert without performing it. In truth, although the singer and pianist are drastically different in style and delivery, they're both forever bound to "Take Five."

Furthermore, bassist Dave Holland's quintet showed that through stellar musicianship and enticing rhythms, audiences would pay attention. Solos from saxophonist Chris Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and trombonist Robin Eubanks were all remarkable, with the bandleader and drummer Billy Kilson admirably maintaining pulsating rhythms. Drummer Roy Haynes' adroit quartet, consisting of saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist Maritn Bejerano and bassist John Sullivan, grabbed the audience through song selection, featuring Thelonious Monk and Pat Metheny compositions. Better known as a pop/smooth-jazz artist, singer Boz Scaggs presented a relaxing segment of standards Saturday evening, which included a somewhat mellow version of his best known song, "Lowdown." Promising artistry was displayed in opening sets by the L.A. County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble on Saturday and the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet on Sunday.

On Sunday, interesting and notable adjuncts came from trumpeter Bobby Rodriquez's Salsa Orchestra, comprised of 20 musicians. They boldly roared, interspersing big band and Latin rhythms with the bandleader's well-intended East L.A. homeboy-hubris proclamations. New Orleans-based Los Hombres Calientes, led by percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, also scored on Sunday through funk grooves that mixed Latin jazz, Caribbean, African and Brazilian rhythms, along with New Orleans down-home soul. And commanding impressive attention was hardy vocalist Lizz Wright, who focused on low-key material in the early festival hours on Saturday.

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