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Review: The 2015 Playboy Jazz Festival

Salvation and swing, dynamism and dance, tradition and transcendence

Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Preservation Hall Jazz Band trombonist Ronell Johnson, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Third World drummer/percussionist Tony "Ruption" Williams, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Vocalist Aloe Blacc, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Ozomatli saxophonist Ulises Bella and trumpeter Asdrubal Sierra, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Eddie Palmieri, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Melissa Aldana, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Morgan James, Playboy Jazz Festival, 2015
Tower of Power horns, Playboy jazz Festival 2015

Jazz honored its past and charted new horizons June 13-14 at the 37th annual Playboy Jazz Festival at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl. Comedian George Lopez, in his third year as master of ceremonies, kept the energy high as he presented a lineup that testified to jazz’s breadth and depth.

Crowd-pleasing vocalists kept the Bowl consistently rocking. On Saturday, Morgan James offered scorchingly sexy soul and, with her composition “Say the Words,” a ballad “to maybe make Aretha jealous.” High-powered “folk-soul” superstar Aloe Blacc married Sam Cooke vocal flavor with dance-driven, near-supernatural cool, while the volcanic voice of Ray Green, backed by one of R&B’s mightiest horn sections, ignited Tower of Power’s Saturday-closing set. Sunday brought soul siren Ledisi, who preached tough-love wisdom with a swagger that recalled Tina Turner in her prime.

On the straight-ahead front, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana’s Saturday set delivered melodically unpredictable solos, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble joined pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter for some of the festival’s most challenging music. Shorter effortlessly filled the Bowl with his titanic soprano trill, while Hancock engaged in harmonically daring exchanges with fellow pianist Carmen Staaf. Sunday showcased “Our Point of View,” celebrating the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records. The set featured questing tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland; the indescribably angular funk of guitarist Lionel Loueke; richly inventive runs from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire; and peerless rhythm from bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, and pianist/keyboardist Robert Glasper.

Big-band aficionados enjoyed a Saturday performance honoring composer Gerald Wilson, who died last September. His orchestra, under the direction of his son, guitarist Anthony Wilson, presented a selection of uniquely urbane compositions and arrangements. The high point was “Viva Tirado,” Kamasi Washington’s tenor saxophone a tough-hearted thing of beauty. Sunday delivered rocketing bebop from the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. Standouts included tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, in fine voice at 88 years of age, and drummer Tommy Campbell, who whipped his sticks behind his back to uncork one of the festival’s most exhilarating solos.

Jazz’s world music profile was likewise on display. On Saturday, Eddie Palmieri’s Afro-Caribbean Jazz Band welcomed the brawny baritone saxophone of Ronnie Cuber; sprightly vibraphonist Joe Locke; Donald Harrison’s cavernous alto sax and dusky vocals; and violinist Antonio De La Fe, whose saw-toothed shrieking proves that maybe it wasn’t Paganini who sold his soul to the devil. A late addition to Sunday’s lineup was reggae masters Third World (a fill-in for King Sunny Ade and his African Beats, unable to appear due to visa issues), who presented island inflections along with an unexpected festival highlight: vocalist A.J. Brown’s powerful Italian-English rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye,” drawing a standing ovation. Working the Latin sound from a different side of the street were festival closers Ozomatli, who combined high-kicking dancers, hip-hop interludes and a surprise appearance by pop vocalist Richard Marx, for an upbeat horn-kissed rendition of his ballad “Right Here Waiting for You.”

Sunday also featured the New Orleans sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, driving the crowd into a conga line with Mark Braud’s piercing trumpet and Ronell Johnson’s big-as-all-outdoors trombone. Two gripping performances acknowledged jazz’s sacred music influences. On Saturday, the Campbell Brothers, from Nashville’s House of God Church, Keith Dominion, blew the doors off with a nuclear-force rendition of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” highlighted by screaming-banshee benedictions from pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell. The Jones Family Singers, a Texas-bred vocal ensemble, took Sunday’s show to church with sanctified sugar from blues-shouting lead singer Alexis Jones.

The music lit out for fresh territory with several progressive ensembles. Saturday brought Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party, with the pianist, resplendent in oversized Waller head mask, driving a kaleidoscopic tour through black musical history, powered by Lisa Harris’s gutsy vocals and Moran’s pounding eighty-eights and pointillistic Fender Rhodes. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective graced Sunday with a stinging harmony clinic from guitarist Charles Altura and socially conscious evocations of contemporary protest mantra “We Can’t Breathe.” Brooklyn ensemble Snarky Puppy was a tripped-out delight, guitarist Mark Lettieri’s Arabian exotica mingling with futuristic keyboard fugues from Justin Stanton and Cory Henry. The next generation also made itself heard in Saturday’s finger-snapping performance by the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Sunday’s stalwart showcase for the “Beyond the Bell” All-City Jazz Band of the L.A. Unified School District.

Salvation and swing, dynamism and dance, tradition and transcendence. That’s jazz. That was the Playboy Jazz Festival.

Originally Published