Jazz review: Day 1 of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl

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‘Ask not what the legendary can do for you,’ declared a near-breathless Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter of the Roots during the band’s closing set on the first night of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. ‘Ask what all of you can do for the legendary.’

And then the Roots’ guitarist, Kirk Douglas, exploded into what may have been the first Guns N’ Roses cover in jazz festival history, a high-octane take on ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ that nastily swerved into Bo Diddley’s percolating ‘Who Do You Love?’ Whether Trotter was referring to the crowd’s delirious response to his band or a larger musical mission for the evening wasn’t entirely clear, but the 33rd annual festival’s tradition of raucously celebrating a legendary musical form -- jazz -- remained powerful, even if that music itself wasn’t immediately apparent in its headliner.


Because as a jazz festival Playboy has long been less of a top-to-bottom survey of where the music is and where it’s headed than it is a massive annual party thrown in its honor, and Playboy’s musical approach remains as gleefully diverse as its crowd.

In her eighth festival appearance Saturday, singer Dianne Reeves was a breezily elegant representative from the jazz vocal tradition in a set highlighted by a richly contemplative take on the late Abbey Lincoln’s ‘Throw It Away’ as the sun fell behind the trees. Reeves also flexed an ability to cast a wide net into new territory with a crackling cover of Ani DiFranco’s sassy ’32 Flavors’ and a set-closing romp through Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy.’

As a nod to the music’s vibrant present and future, the festival audience could’ve hardly asked for a more appropriate pick than 29-year-old trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Hitting the stage just after the LAUSD All City High School Big Band touched on Thelonious Monk and Eddie Harris, Akinmusire’s nimble quintet captured a beautiful extension of the tradition with an assertive performance.

Undaunted by the unenviable task of soundtracking the afternoon’s many late arrivals and picnic lunches, Akinmusire didn’t shy away from quiet moments from his new album, even as chatter from around the Bowl crowded his acrobatic trumpet lines.

During one of the band’s more manic turns that found Akinmusire deftly tangling with saxophonist Walter Smith III and pianist Sam Harris, MC Bill Cosby emerged from the wings to further examine what he heard, walking among the musicians mid-performance to shake hands and murmur a few appreciative words. A drummer in his own ensemble later in the day, Cosby said something into Justin Brown’s ear that had the hard-hitting drummer throwing his head back in laughter; he never missed a beat.

With members not much older than Akinmusire, the eight-piece SFJAZZ Collective showed the sort of taut interplay that helped build its upcoming home in San Francisco’s multimillion-dollar SFJAZZ Center, a dedicated space for the music that broke ground last month. The all-star band offered surprising twists on the Stevie Wonder songbook, including ‘Superstition’ and ‘My Cherie Amour,’ which featured saxophonist David Sánchez leading the band to the outer edges of the song’s familiar lilting core.


Introduced by Wendel Pierce from HBO’s jazz-steeped ‘Treme,’ the Rebirth Brass Band started the festival’s nod toward New Orleans music with a second-line march through the crowd that got hankies and parasols swirling up and down the Bowl.

With saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins working between Rebirth’s rowdy dips into hip-hop and funk, the set couldn’t fully capture ‘A Night in Treme’ in the afternoon sun, but it retained a transportive drive that went a step further than the show.

Shortly after the insistent, trance-like groove of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra had much of the dance-mad Hollywood Bowl feeling like the city’s largest block party, the Roots brought the crowd back into the aisles with a signature blast of funk, rock and hip-hop. Long one of the tightest live bands working, the Roots burned through a raucous medley from its deep catalog that included ‘How I Got Over’ and ‘The Next Movement,’ but apart from Damon Bryson’s frenzied sousaphone runs and Douglas scatting over his guitar solo, the direct line to jazz was elusive until they were joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

Scheduled to perform again Sunday in place of an ailing Lee Konitz, Blanchard unfurled a dynamic solo that shared the lead with Trotter on an infectiously funky cover of ‘The Bottle,’ a heartfelt tribute to the late Gil Scott-Heron. It was a bracing bit of cross-pollination, and in honoring a legend who also bridged gaps between jazz, soul and hip-hop, the Roots lived up to their name as they blended right into the festival’s fabric.


Lee Konitz drops out of Playboy Jazz Festival


Bill Cosby, jazz connoisseur

Ambrose Akinmusire plays it his own way

-- Chris Barton