20th Playboy Fest Listens to Jazz in Its Many Moods


The sun was bright; the breeze was cool. The Hollywood Bowl was overflowing with a celebratory crowd; the occasional beach balls were bouncing freely. The wine was flowing; the outfits were colorful; the music was continuous; the aisles teemed with dancing couples.

And it's the middle of June. So what else could it have been on Saturday than the Playboy Jazz Festival? And a special festival at that, as the long-term, annual, opening-of-summer jazz party celebrated its 20th anniversary.

It's no surprise that the event was sold out, of course. Playboy Jazz Festivals are almost always sold out. Nor was it surprising that the atmosphere was convivial. Playboy festivals in particular and jazz festivals in general are events at which remarkably diverse crowds gather in uncomplicated harmony.

What was surprising was the remarkable congruity of the programming. Festival Productions and producers George Wein and Darlene Chan always attempt to assemble a well-balanced lineup of acts. But one suspects that even they were startled by the manner in which Saturday's show reached out to touch nearly every aspect of jazz, and did so in ways that revealed the underlying affinities among some of the music's most seemingly disparate elements.

The program seemed to pose the question: Where does jazz begin, and where does it end? And music that reached from the Royal Crown Revue's revival of '40s jump band music and Wynton Marsalis' romp through "Buddy Bolden's Blues" to King Sunny Ade's African juju and Arturo Sandoval's big band, Afro-Cuban bop underscored the foolhardiness of attempting to reply with too narrowly defined an answer.

Because the truth is that everything on the show presented a slightly different take on jazz, another slant on a musical form that is greeting the new global century by discovering its affinities with music from every part of the world.

The connections and the contrasts, for example, between King Sunny Ade and the Royal Crown Revue were fascinating. Neither can be described as a mainstream jazz act. Yet King Sunny's surging, dance-inspired beat, call-and-response vocal patterns and inexorable rhythms flow from the same sources that generated the Royal Crown players' brisk urban swing and boppish improvising. And Alli Mohammed, the drummer with King Sunny, a virtual African Art Blakey, could easily have played the set with the Royal Crown Revue.

Arturo Sandoval's Hot House Tour Band and the Poncho Sanchez Jazz Band revealed, often in super-heated fashion, the Latin perspectives of jazz. Sandoval is a nonpareil trumpeter whose only flaw is a tendency--fed by his virtuosity--to pour it all into every solo. But his roaring big band (mostly consisting of first-class L.A. musicians) and his own Latin rhythm section recalled Dizzy Gillespie's important forays into the Afro Cuban linkages with jazz. Conga player Poncho Sanchez, leading a crisp octet, added a pop touch to his lively collection of Latin jazz, tossing in catchy renderings of the "Playboy Theme" and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" (a hit in the '60s for Mongo Santamaria).

A rare appearance by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his septet reflected the leader's omnivorous musical interests. Moving from John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" to a Frank Sinatra dedication, to a raucous New Orleans-style version of the Bolden blues, he brought the crowd to its feet, triggering a handkerchief-waving exhibition reminiscent of Mardi Gras fervor. If the variety of music Marsalis threw at his group (which rarely works as a unit these days) resulted in some ensemble uncertainties, there was no faulting the fine solo work of Marsalis, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon or the nattily dressed alto saxophonist Wessell "Warm Daddy" Anderson.

The Billy Higgins All Stars and the Nicholas Payton Quintet offered another perspective--one more familiar to basic jazz fans. With a mostly veteran lineup that included Higgins on drums, Harold Land and Charles McPherson on saxophones, Jeff Littleton on bass and Billy Childs at the piano, the All-Stars provided a beautifully played, fundamental view of post-World War II bebop, still the most influential jazz style. Payton's ensemble, with sterling solo contributions from Tim Warfield on saxophone and Anthony Wonsey on piano, took a look at the same style, but in its revivalist '90s form. Both views were intriguing; both represented a valuable aspect of today's jazz.

So, too, did the singing of Ruth Brown and Al Jarreau. More pop-oriented and more founded in the blues, Brown's stirring vocals--occasionally harking back to Bessie Smith--supplied a look toward jazz at its roots. And Jarreau, always a musical chameleon and an ever-compelling improviser, proved that the only difference between jazz singing and jazz playing is that one is done with the voice, the other with an instrument.

Saturday opened with a performance by Bobby Rodriguez's talented L.A. County High School for the Arts Jazz Band and closed, spectacularly, with a fireworks display as the climax of Jarreau's set--the first combination of jazz and pyrotechnics in Playboy Jazz Festival history. It was an effective and appropriate 20th anniversary salute to a grand event.

* The Playboy Jazz Festival's Sunday program will be reviewed in Tuesday's Calendar.

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