As a jazz fan, you really have to savor the select moments of the Playboy Jazz Festival, which began its 34th installment Saturday at its longtime home, the Hollywood Bowl.
Because as a stand-alone, multi-day barometer of the state of the music, the festival doesn't measure up to internationally known siblings such as Newport or Montreux — not that Playboy even tries (only by the most generous definition could some of the past weekend's acts, like Ozomatli, Sharon Jones and Robin Thicke, ever be considered "jazz").
But as an instrument for checking in on the enduring connective power of music, Playboy's diverse and generally party-ready lineup stands on its own in a city as sprawling and occasionally difficult to capture as Los Angeles. The festival has become a summer tradition in Southern California, and this weekend marked a farewell to one of its constants: longtime emcee Bill Cosby, 74, who last week announced he would be stepping down.
As a result, it wasn't much of a surprise that some of those memorable moments revolved around Cosby. Though the comic legend and 1980s sitcom star only glancingly addressed his departure on the first day with a white, festival-branded T-shirt that read "301/2 Years" across the back and "Thank you" down either sleeve, the times when he was onstage reminded the crowd what they would miss in the years ahead.
Conducting his band the Cos' of Good Music — an ad hoc collection of young jazz talent assembled by Cosby in various forms since 1995 — Cosby was all long reaches and exultant gestures in guiding the group through head-bobbing post-bop, flexing the sort of joyful physicality immediately familiar to anyone who caught Cosby during the opening credits of "The Cosby Show." But watching Cosby finally sitting in with the band behind a drum kit, countering and complementing the rhythms of fellow drummer Ndugu Chancler, you could tell Cosby's involvement with the festival may sometimes appear to be all in fun, but it was never a joke.
Cosby made another welcome appearance midway through Christian McBride's set with his big band, which won a Grammy this year in the large ensemble category. The group had fluid, deeply swung energy to spare, but as vocalist Melissa Walker came on for a pleasant if straightforward reading of "When I Fall in Love," much of the festival's focus turned to beach balls or the dinner hour as conversation overcame some nimble soloing.
Then Cosby came onstage to contribute an array of nonverbal yelps, grunts and booming, scat-like laughs as the group took on what resembled a funk-shaded reworking of Quincy Jones' theme from "The Bill Cosby Show," Cosby's first sitcom from 1969 to '71. As the song closed, a beaming McBride back-introduced Cosby as "also known as Chet Kincaid" (Cosby's character from the show) as the host walked offstage with a fist in the air, playfully triumphant.
Joined in his big band by fellow bassist and rising star Ben Williams, McBride took some time out for a little hazing of his young sideman, who released an impressive debut album last year. Complaining that the "handsome" Williams was supposed to wear a white shirt like the rest of the band, McBride teased, "If you take that jacket off you might get paid." After Williams cheerfully complied, the two took off through "In a Hurry," which featured the bassists trading tangled solos in a gesture that felt like a nod from one generation to the next.
The Global Gumbo All Stars, another high-profile jazz act from Saturday, struggled to compete for the Bowl's attention as the temperatures cooled. Though the group offered an intriguing mix of Cuban and African sounds between the piano work of Alfredo Rodriguez and the whisper-quick guitar of Lionel Loueke, the group's sunny, intricate interplay sometimes drifted into the background as their set wore on. This despite Rodriguez's inventive efforts, which included laying what looked like a sheet of paper across his piano strings to make his instrument sound more like a plucked guitar.
Not wanting to meet the same struggles for attention, Sheila E.entered to a parade of feathered Mardi Gras dancers (who were later also borrowed by headliner Ozomatli for their drum-heavy entrance through the aisles) and treated a grateful crowd through a few detours into her early career with the Prince songbook, including "Erotic City" and "The Glamorous Life," along with an endearing guest spot from father Pete Escovedo, who in appreciation ofFather's Day weekend delivered a take on "Fly Me to the Moon."
Smooth jazz saxophonist Boney James upped the ante with crowd interaction as he marched up two sections of the Bowl and back down again armed with polished melodies so crisp and clean there no longer seemed to be a human attached to them.
Like-minded trumpeter Rick Braun later joined James for Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass," another breezily danceable song that probably would've done fine even without Braun yelling, "Somebody scream!" But it set the table for the genre-skipping Ozomatli, which delivered a rambunctious set that mixed in elements of Latin rock, funk and Middle Eastern music.
On Sunday, after a fitting Father's Day greeting from Cosby, the Calabasas High School Jazz A Band got the second day off to a fast start with an ambitious take on Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" marked by vibraphone and appropriately murmured vocal color from the horn section. Kenyan-born singer-songwriter KG Omulo continued the global sounds of the previous night with a reggae-tinged Afropop spiked with funk guitar, and Chilean orchestra Chico Trujillo found curiously addictive ground between ska, cumbia and gypsy music.
But it was the veteran jazz group Cookers that offered one of the weekend's highlights with a hard-hitting set that seemed to catch Cosby's ear. "This is the Playboy jazz festival," Cosby yelped from his usual position at stage right, emphasizing the music that inspired the weekend-long party in the first place.
After the band (composed of players who backed legends such as Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill and Art Blakey) swirled around a powerful solo from trumpeter David Weiss, Cosby walked onstage and said a few quiet words with Weiss and saxophonist Billy Harper. As the musicians laughed and the song continued to build around them, Cosby walked off the bandstand and back to his post, never looking back.