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Playboy Jazz Festival

James Moody

In another locale, a 30th anniversary would have at least warranted a commemorative speech from its founder or main organizer, or even a special all-star band jam/segment. But at the Playboy Jazz Festival, held at Los Angeles’ landmark Hollywood Bowl, the focus was completely on the “present” and the past is, well, so yesterday. Wise-cracking, jazz-loving emcee Bill Cosby’s band, Cos of Good Music, his yearly collective, burgeoned with talent and probably was the closest thing to an all-star group at the festival. Its 2008 installment featured Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Dwayne Burno on bass, Benny Green on piano, Billy Harper on tenor saxophone, Jerry Peters on Hammond B3 organ, David T. Walker on guitar and longstanding member Ndugu Chancler on drums.

Cosby’s ensemble played early when many of the Playboy Jazz Festival attendees were arriving and setting up for the first of two long days of bantering, drinking, dining, sunning and, somewhere in the midst of all that, taking in some music. The bandleader, helping out on drums, was undaunted and well accustomed to the inattentiveness of the crowd, and dedicated a lively number to departed icon organists Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith. The hard-bop classic “Moanin'” followed and maintained the energy with first-rate group interplay and a dynamic solo from Akinmusire that surprisingly impressed the seemingly uninterested listeners. Wrapping up a swinging and well-balanced segment, the group played a festive Latin-flavored piece, full of soulful brass choruses and solos.

A little later, the ever-youthful, 83-year-old saxophonist James Moody stirred up the audience with his captivating charm and still quite resounding playing. As would be expected, his well-known gem “Moody’s Mood for Love,” featuring the reedist also singing lyrics penned by Eddie Jefferson and closing with a rapping verse, was a big crowd favorite. Moody, clearly an endorser of the Dizzy Gillespie school of jazz, kept both the entertainment and artistic level high. Pianist Renee Rosnes’ arrangement of “Con Alma” was tastefully performed, with the saxophonist adding sparks. Following that, singer Roberta Gambarini and trumpeter Terence Blanchard joined him for a light and traditional-sounding rendition of “Sunny Side of the Street.” Most notably, Moody had plenty of energy to jam away with Blanchard during high-powered renderings of Gillespie’s “Bebop” and Sonny Rollins’ island-flavored “St. Thomas.”

The second day of the festival, occurring on Fathers’ Day, was not as well attended as the first, yet overflowed with exceptional musical offerings. The grand highlight was unmistakably Herbie Hancock and the River of Possibilities Tour. Encompassing the grouping were Dave Holland, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Chris Potter, reeds; and Lionel Loueke, guitar, along with vocalists Sony Kitchell and Amy Keys, and additionally the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Still somewhat elated from his Grammy win and subsequent attention, Hancock presented an appealing contemporary-based program that was both superbly anchored and propelled by his sidemen’s formidable talents. “Watermelon Man,” from his groundbreaking Headhunters album, was performed as a wicked 17-beat groove, and the irrepressibly funky “Chameleon” featured Hancock donning his strap-on synthesizer, while jamming away with his players.

Naturally, the keyboardist’s CD River, a tribute to longtime friend Joni Mitchell, who unfortunately couldn’t be on hand, was highlighted. First, Kitchell sang the lightly rhythmic, pop-folky “All I Want,” and later the title track was additionally adorned by another longtime friend, saxophonist Wayne Shorter. For the grand finale of the set, the players (including Marcus Miller on bass) synergized with Allen’s 30-person adolescent troupe for crowd-pleasing high-flying jubilation. Other noteworthy segments during the weekend were Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet, Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Red Earth: Malian Journey, pianists Robert Glasper and Hiromi’s Sonicbloom, and Sherrie Maricle and the Diva Jazz Orchestra.

Originally Published