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Review: Playboy Jazz Festival 2012

From soul to fusion to smooth: all things and then some

John Medeski (foreground), Jack Bruce (background), Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Vernon Reid, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Spectrum Road, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic Project, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Terri Lyne Carrington, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Bill Harper, David Weiss, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Cindy Blackman Santana, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
George Cables, Billy Harper, David Weiss, Eddie Henderson, Craig Handy, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Left to Right: Bill Cosby, Tia Fuller, Ingrid Jensen, Erena Terakubo, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Bill Cosby and The Cos of Good Music, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Bill Cosby, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012
Jack Bruce, Playboy Jazz Festival 2012

The 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival attempted to be all things jazz-related and then some, to fill the historic 20,000-person Hollywood Bowl amphitheater. Despite the audience’s near-legendary penchant for mingling, nibbling, guzzling and doing very little listening, they actually responded appreciatively to mainstream, unadulterated groupings. Many aspects of PJF (number 34) were rote, with few surprises to keep the audience and longtime master of ceremonies Bill Cosby awake. It was his final stretch at the helm, after 31 years, and he says this year it’s definite.

There were pop, funk and R&B jaunts that enthralled concert-goers: New Orleans’ Soul Rebels with Leo Nocentelli, Ivan Neville and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux; super soul singer Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings; smooth jazz reedman Boney James; Nigerian rocking soul vocalist KG Omula; and blue-eyed soul/pop heartthrob singer/pianist Robin Thicke. Singer/guitarist Keb’ Mo’ somewhat covered the blues category; he intermixed the inspirational “The Door” with the gritty blues of “Government Cheese” and “Further on Down the Road.” It ignited the Bowl when local blues/jazz diva Barbara Morrison sat in to totally rock the house.

Although titled the Ramsey Lewis Electric Band, the keyboardist’s group had very little firepower. Lewis pleasantly grooved, playing “Sun Goddess,” his 1975 jazz/soul fusion hit recorded with Earth, Wind & Fire, and the gospel standard “Wade in the Water.” The R&B classic “Betcha by Golly Wow” inspired the audience to sing along and his enduring 1965 hit “The In Crowd” got many to sway along.

On the coattails of his recent Large Jazz Ensemble Performance Grammy for The Good Feeling, bassist Christian McBride showed his evolution as a bandleader and arranger with the selections “Brother Mister” and “In a Hurry.” Additionally, the setting provided McBride with a rare opportunity to perform with his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker (also on the CD). She shined singing a rousing “Big City is for Me” and the ballad “When I Fall in Love.” For comic relief Cosby joined the mini-orchestra to scat during the “Cosby Theme.”

The Cos of Good Music group, assembled by stalwart drummer/musical director Ndugu Chancler, scored early in the Exceptionally Tasteful category. An all-women frontline- Tia Fuller, alto saxophone; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; and Erena Terakubo, tenor saxophone-brilliantly contributed impressive solos and interacted solidly during the hard swinging “Cherokee” and a gently pulsating “Poinciana.” An equally notable rhythm section of Farid Barron (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass), Matthew Garrison (bass) and Babatunde Lea (percussion) provided support, with Cosby’s light hijinx in the background. Surprisingly, he let the ensemble flourish and only briefly took the reins to weirdly sing the R&B-flavored “Searchin.'”

The much-heralded Cookers, venerable veterans and all bandleaders in their own right, made a strong PJF impression that commanded the crowd’s attention. Included in the five-year-old ensemble were trumpeter Eddie Henderson; tenor saxophonists Billy Harper and Craig Handy; pianist George Cables; bassist Cecil McBee; trumpeter David Weiss; and drummer Billy Hart. Besides exhibiting remarkable artistry, the players showcased mostly originals, beginning with a fast-paced “Captain Black,” which featured solos by Weiss, Handy and Cables. In contrast, McBee’s “Peace Maker” was a gently themed piece, accentuated by muted and unmuted trumpet solos. Rounding out an exceptional set was an untitled tribute to trumpeter Lee Morgan that was propelled by swinging brass and stirring solos from all the players.

Pure delight and amusement engulfed the Hollywood Bowl during the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s performance. Like a favorite old pair of jeans, the audience was very comfortable with the longstanding band and reveled to traditional New Orleans jazz songs by shaking white napkins and dancing unabashedly in the aisles. “Sweet Substitute,” “Ol Mo’ Kicked the Bucket” and the immortal “When the Saints Go Marching In” were tastefully adorned with spirited solos and rousing singing to kick the party into high gear. As if the band was showing penitence, they closed with the emotional gospel standard “I Was Lost, But Now I’m Found.”

Though not as much fun, but extremely important on a variety of levels, was Terri Lyne Carrington’s recent Best Jazz Vocal Grammy-winning Mosaic Project set. The all-women ensemble included Fuller, saxophone; Jensen, trumpet; Helen Sung and Patrice Rushen, keyboards; Mimi Jones, bass; and Linda Taylor, guitar. Furthermore, singers Nona Hendryx, Gretchen Parlato and Carmen Lundy alternated vocal duties, with cameo performances from Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Parloto very expressively sang “I Got Lost in His Arms” to an ephemeral backdrop, while Lundy emotionally got into “Unconditional Love” with fiery brass solos bolstering the number.

The iconic Civil Rights activist and university professor, Angela Davis reprised her spoken word parts from the CD, with Reeves singing to a scintillatingly backdrop for “Echo.” For many boomers it was a monumental moment, while younger generation attendees had to do Google searches to understand the significance of the situation. Toward the end of the session, Bridgewater fronted the group for a funky “Soul Talk.” In closing, Cosby proclaimed the set “a performance of character.”

Latin music was represented by the L.A.-based timbale player/singer/bandleader Louie Cruz Beltran, an opening performer who seized arriving attendees’ attention with percolating percussion, stimulating chanting choruses and searing brass arrangements. The perpetual crowd pleaser, drummer/percussionist/singer Sheila E, pulled out all the stops for a high-energy set, including her father, percussionist, Pete Escovedo; saxophonist Jessie J; and a heavy dose of ’80s Prince-influenced material. Alternatively, the 10-person entourage Chico Trujillo presented Chilean cumbia that playfully meshed ska, reggae, Balkan, klezmer, banda and traditional Latin music. Ozomatli, the festival closer for the first night, lacked their usual verve that includes high-energy hip-hop and funk, instead focused on driving Central American textures and foundations.

Only fusion diehards stayed to relish the rekindling of the Tony Williams Lifetime’s fusion as performed by Spectrum Road: guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Jack Bruce, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana. “Coming Back Home” was thematic and melodic, while “Right On” was bombastic and unrelenting, highlighted by Blackman, Medeski, and Reid wailing away. Bruce, who actually sang and played on some of Williams’ groundbreaking records, was steady and gleamed the whole time. He took special delight singing the very timely “Politician,” which he originally recorded with the rock power trio Cream in 1968. Not exactly what one expects to hear at a jazz festival, but at PBJ the implausible often becomes reality.

Originally Published