Each year, at June’s gloomiest peak, the Hollywood Bowl hosts a seamless two-day festival that crams more jazz and jazz-adjacent acts into a single day than a subscription package to the Bowl does all summer. It is a marathon of sound and consumption, the rowdiest and friendliest jazz crowd within a few hundred miles.
On Saturday, the still-novel rotating carousel stage brought a differing approach with each half revolution, linking without any interruptions a college vocal ensemble, a behatted retro jazz outfit, a studious homage to French gypsy jazz, four vibraphonists, two blues greats, a grizzled supergroup, two diametrically opposed British pop stars, a vibrantly percussive big band and a bass-slapping front man who opened with a Beatles tune.
Whatever the algorithm, it largely worked, with each act dictating the appropriate level of discourse among the more than 15,000 attendees.
The Django Festival Allstars, a French hot club quintet, served duty as tablecloth jazz for peckish sunbathers in the mid-afternoon. Champagne corks popped over the crowd like bubbly meteorites as the band worked through standards like “Tea for Two” and “Minor Swing” on the heels of lead guitarist Samson Schmitt’s nimble stroke.
In tribute to the late Bobby Hutcherson, Stefon Harris assembled a multi-generational quartet of vibraphonists that also included newcomer Joel Ross, the robust Warren Wolf and the repeatedly hailed “godfather of neo-soul” Roy Ayers. It did not hurt to have Eric Harland on drums and hometown hero pianist Patrice Rushen providing some of the most monstrous straight-ahead solos of the day.
Taj Mahal, clad in a mustard-hued walking suit, shared the stage with a bearded Keb’Mo. They opened with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” growling as they rotated into the daylight. Backup vocalists and a horn section filled out the bluesy set while guitar techs flanked both sides of the stage as both leaders changed instruments with nearly every song. Mahal strummed his way through a ukulele, banjo, electric guitar and acoustic guitar before adding some harmonica.
By the time Hudson pivoted to the crowd, the sun had dropped behind the trees and the house had filled in substantially. The jazz supergroup which included drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier can be linked to virtually every major jazz figure since the late ’50s.
The act was supporting its ethereal self-titled album released late last week but brought a beefier, festival-ready live set. The group opened with a choppy ride through Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” Scofield and Medeski shot daggers from their humming machines while DeJohnette provided a muscular backbeat like a greaser on the cusp of another reckless spin.
Amid the chunky riffs and feedback-friendly dissonance, the real revelation of the set was DeJohnette’s unexpected vocal take on the Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek,” belting from his drum stool — as it was meant to be sung.
“Let’s get crazy before it gets dark,” announced MC George Lopez.But there was no need to get overly rambunctious because singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae was onstage in a tinfoil pantsuit backed by a cracker-jack R&B band.
She seduced the crowd with slow jams, a judicious mix of folk and funk turned up to 11. She closed with a well-received pair of radio hits, “Put Your Records On” and “Like A Star” but she didn’t get to finish the second tune as the sprightly one-man-band Jacob Collier was harmonizing from the other side of the wall, echoing across the nighttime crowd.
Collier was the first to use the Bowl’s mighty screens to his own advantage, overlaying live footage of each manic assault on his multiple musical workstations. Collier opened with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing,” emitting electric doo-wop harmonies through various tricks and whistles.
He ran around the stage playing some drums, an electric upright bass, a grand piano and a bank of keyboards, all while singing and gesturing toward the crowd in a sarong and oversized shirt. His act was a musical spinning of plates, seemingly changing parts of the song on the fly in polished loops without letting the beat drop.
“If there was a time to smoke marijuana, that was it,” Lopez announced at the close of Collier’s frazzled set. Regardless of in-house policy, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval brought the fire. Backed by his Latin big band with an assist from actor Andy Garcia on bongos, Sandoval played a high-energy set that included mambos both numbered and temperature-gauged.
He brought local trumpeter Wayne Bergeron out for a tribute to Maynard Ferguson. The two rattled glassware with a high-flying blues battle that got the crowd on its feet. Sandoval limited his trumpet playing and announced before sitting on the piano bench “the trumpet is so painful. I feel good when I play the piano.”
“I’m gonna play the most cold-blooded bassline in Motown bassline history,” Marcus Miller declared before playing two notes on his electric bass. Miller was the crowd-pleaser closer and he brought an instant connection with the audience by opening with the Beatles’ “Come Together” and following it up with the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Alex Han offered sparse lines and inventive solos that reached beyond the groove while vocalist Rahsaan Patterson, in shoes that could be seen from the last row, sang in tribute to the late vocalist Al Jarreau including fan favorites “I Will Be Here for You” and “We’re in This Love Together.”
The Playboy Jazz Festival has always struck a unique balance between the ribaldry of its sponsor and the integrity of the Los Angeles Philarhmonic. It is a festival that embraces high art and lowbrow, equal bites steak and broccoli. As long as nobody gets hit in the eye by a cork, everybody’s happy.