Live Review: 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival

An eclectic mix at the Hollywood Bowl, from Benny Golson and the Cookers to Angelique Kidjo and Terrace Martin

Benny Golson—with Mike Gurrola behind him—at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival
Benny Golson—with Mike Gurrola behind him—at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival (photo: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

Every year the Playboy Jazz Festival, held at the 19,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, is a roll of the dice in regards to mainstream performances. Festival attendees looking for straight-ahead jazz this year had to patiently abide funk, Afro-futurism, world, R&B, fusion, Latin, and even rock sets. For uninitiated, unfamiliar, and curious listeners, that provided an invigorating amalgamation of styles and artists. Meanwhile, the disapproving faction, who strived to stay cool in the 75- to 80-degree heat with no shade, socialized, dined, and wandered about the hilly grounds.

NEA Jazz Master and affable jazz survivor Benny Golson’s 90th Birthday Quartet was a refuge for those seeking unadulterated jazz in the first half of the two-day soirée (June 8 and 9). Friend to legends Clifford Brown and John Coltrane, a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the ’50s, along with many other associations and film/TV scores to the present, Golson—aided by pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist Mike Gurrola, and drummer Roy McCurdy—had plenty of anecdotes and original selections to play. Standouts included “Whisper Not,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Stablemates,” “Along Comes Betty,” and the very popular “Blues March.”

Representing the mainstream on the second day of PJF was the Cookers sextet, consisting of veteran players George Cables, piano; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Cecil McBee, bass; Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; and Billy Hart, drums. They featured hard-bop originals such as Harper’s “The Call of the Wild,” Cables’ “Blackfoot,” and Harper’s “Croquet Ballet,” previously recorded with Lee Morgan. The powerhouse group was serious business and easily matched the dynamism of raucous rockers, while swinging hard and palatably. 

A special and notable insertion into the Playboy program was singer Michael Mayo, a recent graduate from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (formerly the Thelonious Monk Institute) and the New England Conservatory of Music. Backed by a quartet and three singers, Mayo showcased new songs “Without Your Love,” “Something About the Way You Move,” and “What’s My Name.” They all featured his velvet and very malleable delivery in a musical melding of vintage Return to Forever, Stevie Wonder, Clare Fischer, and the Hi-Lo’s.

The only true representation of Latin Jazz at PJF came via the absolutely amazing Harold López-Nussa Quartet. The Cuban pianist, joined by brother/percussionist Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, bassist Luques Curtis, and trumpeter Mayquel González, sounded much like fellow countrymen Omar Sosa and Chucho Valdés. That was especially true when he interweaved classical and jazz motifs for “Lobo’s Cha.” However, at different junctures he had a much lighter and gentler touch, such as during “El Viaje.” Overall, it was a commanding performance by an artist to look out for in the future.

Harold López-Nussa, Mayquel Gonzales, and Luques Curtis at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival
Left to right: Harold López-Nussa, Mayquel González, and Luques Curtis at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival (photo: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

Maceo Parker, known for his funky saxophone playing with legends James Brown and Ray Charles, focused mostly on Charles’ material with his 18-piece Maceo Parker Big Band, formerly the Ray Charles Orchestra. Sprinkled amongst them were high-caliber L.A. musicians Ricky Woodard and Louis Van Taylor, tenor saxophone; Larry Goldings, organ; Scott Mayo, alto saxophone; and Paul Kreibich, drums. Two days prior to the 15th anniversary of Charles’ passing, Parker soulfully sang classics like “Let the Good Times Roll” and “What’d I Say” with the Rayletts. For good measure, the saxophonist/singer injected his R&B hit “Pass the Peas,” adorned by the band heartily cutting loose.   

“Celebrating Ndugu Chancler,” in a 50-minute set, encapsulated the career of the popular L.A.-based drummer, who died last year. It covered the three main areas he worked in: swing, fusion, and funk, with a mosaic of pictures and videos displayed from those eras. Chancler’s longtime friend and colleague at USC, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, was the musical director. She led a large ensemble that included Ernie Watts, tenor saxophone; Alphonso Johnson, bass; Doc Powell, guitar; Terri Lyne Carrington and Rayford Griffin, drums; Byron Miller, bass; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Alexis Angulo and Michael Erreon, keyboards; and Josie James and T.C. Carson, vocals, along with special guest Sheila E. on vocals and percussion. They all performed superbly for a fast-paced set that included Herbie Hancock’s “Chan’s Song,” Santana’s “Dance With Me,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and George Duke’s P-Funking “Reach for It.”   

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Continuing the connection between jazz and partying, with even more spirit, was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They quickly aroused the audience with fiery and irrepressible second-line jamming. Also associated with New Orleans are funeral processions, and the sextet took a moment to honor Malcolm John Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, by way of spiritual “The Old Rugged Cross,” with pictures of the popular singer/pianist showing on the big screen. In keeping with a Playboy Jazz Fest tradition, most of the audience waved white napkins and handkerchiefs. Afterward, the brass band got back to good-time music, inspiring the audience to dance to “I Used to Love Her,” “Me and the Squeeze,” and “Dirty Old Man.”

Angelique Kidjo at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival
Angelique Kidjo at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival (Photo: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

In the realm of world music, singer Angelique Kidjo—the human embodiment of the Energizer Bunny—spotlighted Talking Heads/Afro-influenced rock and Celia Cruz-style Afro-Cuban salsa. That included plenty of dancing, and Kidjo, as she normally does, brought some of the audience on stage. Gambian kora player Sona Jobarteh was much more traditionally oriented, playing songs from her homeland. But like Kidjo, she affirmed female empowerment and drew strong approval from the audience.

Breaking out the amps and cranking up the knobs were fusion jammers Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective, who blasted away intensely. Contrarily, they toned things down for vocalist Quiana Lynell, who did gospel- and R&B-flavored songs. Banjo master Béla Fleck and the Flecktones tastefully mixed bluegrass, jazz, and blues, showcasing vintage songs from the ’90s and, for a special moment, jamming impromptu with Blanchard.

Terrace Martin at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival
Terrace Martin at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival (photo: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

Donny McCaslin Blow, a quintet led by the saxophonist carried on the spirit and aggressiveness of his former boss, the late pop/rock icon David Bowie. Almost all-female Jazz in Pink, with a male percussionist, leaned heavily toward smooth-jazz dynamics and drew strong crowd response. For Afro-Futurism, keyboardist, saxophonist, and vocalist Terrace Martin took a page from the Robert Glasper songbook by employing a vocoder and space/funk explorations.

Rounding out the two-day Southern California extravaganza were pop heavyweights Sheila E., Boz Scaggs, Kool & the Gang, and the Family Stone. E.’s group wore ’60s-style dashikis, did retro rock and soul material, and threw in some of her classic songs. Scaggs coolly presented soulful songs old and new, including “Lowdown” and “Lido.” The Gang did a cavalcade of their hits with a crew of dancers and Stone tried to embody Sly’s persona, with the help of Jerry Martini, saxophonist from the original band.

Chris J. Walker

Chris J. Walker is a music journalist based in Los Angeles who has covered the jazz and blues scene all over Southern California, and throughout the rest of California, as much as possible for over 25 years. He, however, is not totally relegated to jazz and blues, and occasionally reviews folk, rock, R&B, funk and world music events as well.