Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival

During a press conference, Playboy Magazine publisher Hugh Hefner said Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Count Basie all played the company’s first jazz festival in Chicago. The 27th installment, spearheaded by producers George Wein and Darlene Chang, didn’t have musical offerings on that historical scale, but it did feature some moderately engaging performances, with occasional spikes of excitement.

The fest began on Saturday with the Los Angeles Multi-School Jazz Band, conducted by Reggie Andrews, featuring some of the area’s most promising young players. Following them were the Jazz Tap Ensemble and Caravan Project, spotlighting Lynn Dally’s impressive jazz-styled choreography.

Next, drummer Stix Hooper’s Viewpoint somewhat recalled Art Blakey and Elvin Jones’ hard-bop bands, but with a more contemporary-jazz-informed approach. The Joey DeFrancesco – Kenny Burrell Quartet, with saxophonist Herman Riley and drummer Billy Hart, then served up a funky homage to recently departed organ legend Jimmy Smith. Their soul-drenched set, including tender ballads featuring Burrell’s stirring guitar playing, culminated in a moving rendition of “Honky Tonkin'” prompting the “white handkerchief treatment” from the audience. It’s their way of saying “mercy, mercy, mercy.”

A quick rotation of turntable stage revealed Latin jazz bass innovator Israel “Cachao” Lopez and the Cineson All-Stars, with actor Andy Garcia playing bongos and emceeing. The talented band, including saxophonist Justo Almario, trombonist Jimmy Bosch, trumpeter Kiwizo Fumero and special guest reedist Paquito D’Rivera, was truly captivating. Their exemplary classic Cuban jazz and mambo compositions zestfully inspired the audience.

Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band, consisting of keyboardist Sam Yahel, guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Jeff Ballad, shot for and but didn’t often achieve the same exciting results as the Cineson All-Stars. The group’s funk-jazz sound featured shades of James Brown, the Average White Band — and even Led Zeppelin, when the Elastic Band covered “The Bridge.”

Blues singer/guitarist Keb’ Mo opened his set with a slow version of “She Just Wants to Dance” and continued with his crowd-pleasing Delta-influenced material. The one clunker was the ill-fitting Marvin Gaye ballad “What’s Happening Brother?” from Mo’s latest CD, Peace…Back by Popular Demand.

The Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra Legacy represented the traditional jazz sound — and it even featured 85-year-old trumpeter and band alumnus Snooky Young. Led by trumpeter Jon Faddis, and later featuring vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, the orchestra’s instrumental selections were rousing, but Bridgewater upped the ante with Jobim’s “Quiet Nights” and a swinging rendition of “Bad Blues.”

Pianist Ramsey Lewis’ trio and guest organist Kevin Randolph sailed in gospel and inspirational waters, with “Oh Happy Day,” drawing the most significant response, but Saturday’s remaining schedule was firmly in the smooth-jazz camp. Saxophonist Boney James danced around while playing his latest hits, and concluding the day was guitarist Norman Brown’s Summer Storm 2005, an all-star collective highlighted by vocalists Peabo Bryson and Brenda Russell, along with saxophonist Everette Harp. Brown’s crew each did a showcase of his or her own music, and the whole group united for a grand finale.

Sunday wasn’t quite as provocative as the opening day of the festival, but it still had many notable performances. The North Hollywood High School Jazz Band’s gifted young musicians were the beginning act. The first professional was neosoul/contemporary-jazz singer Ledisi, who rendered an arresting version of “Chameleon” and changed things up with the attitude-filled blues vamp “Get Out of My Kitchen.”

Legendary drummer Chico Hamilton and Euphoria, featuring the remarkable guest saxophonist Eric Person, had a setting similar to Hooper’s band. But Hamilton’s band was more adventurous, traversing hard bop, funk and world-music-tinged jazz.

Vibraphonist Roy Ayers steadfastly retained his 1970s R&B-jazz approach through drawn-out versions of his ever-popular tunes “Searching” and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” He also stepped out of his funk-groove comfort zone for an improvised version of “Night in Tunisia.”

From another solar system was the daKah Hip Hop Orchestra, a 70-person amalgamation of brass, strings, singers, rhythm section, DJs and rappers. Led by conductor Geoff Gallegos, the orchestra’s massive power — melding symphonic and hip-hop elements with touches of jazz — could not be ignored. The pearl of the daKah’s set was a beyond-belief version of George Clinton and Funkadelic’s idiosyncratic “Maggot Brain,” highlighted by guest violinist Lilli Haydn’s sensational playing. It drew the only standing ovation of the entire festival.

In comparison to daKah, the rest of the festival was fairly straightforward. The veteran Health Brothers — featuring Jimmy on reeds and Tootie playing drums, along with bassist Paul West (replacing the recently deceased Percy) and pianist Jeb Patton — returned the emphasis to sophisticated, enticing, unadulterated jazz. The quartet superbly delivered stirring originals, such as “When to Sneeze,” and noteworthy timeless classics, such as Strayhorn’s “Day Dreaming” and Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.”

Also remaining true to form was New Orleans’ favorite son, Dr. John, who served up a tantalizing gumbo. The ever-cool piano man accurately gauged the concert-goers’ appetite for good time R&B-jazz, including the bluesy ballad “Without You” and the gospel classic “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” which got the handkerchiefs waving once again.

Puerto Rican crooner Gilberto Santa Rosa fired up dancing passions with salsa de romantica numbers. The Hollywood Bowl’s pathways were transformed with couples doing spicy gyrations to the intoxicating rhythms.

Following that fun interlude, the dynamics were transformed by the threshold-pushing Saxophone Summit, featuring Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Joshua Redman, who replaced regular member Michael Brecker. Needless to say, the reed masters roared grandly during ensemble and solo sections for “Alexander the Great,” along with incredible renditions of Coltrane’s “India” and “Impressions.” Through all of it, Lovano was the most straightahead and full sounding, Redman was funky and angular and Liebman explored the upper and outer strata.

In terms of star power, there was no denying guitarist/vocalist George Benson’s magnitude. He fueled the audience’s party passions with his most notable hits. He stayed glued to his microphone for most of the evening, belting out such hits as “Give Me the Night,” “Masquerade” and a scorching version of Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto,” with the late singer’s daughter Kenya helping out. But Benson also managed to play some mean guitar on “Breezin'” and “On Broadway.”

Pianist-trumpeter-arranger Gordon Goodwin closed the festival with his Big Phat Band, which includes the likes of saxophonist Eric Marienthal, guitarist Grant Geissmann, trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and drummer Ray Brinker. Together, they played many fantastic charts, including the standouts “Samba Del Gringo,” “Thad Said No” and “Swing From the Fences.”

Maybe not on the level of those Ellington or Basie bands that Hefner and Co. presented so long ago, but Goodwin and his Big Phat Band represented the big-band sound with incredible style.

Originally Published