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Los Van Van Leads This Jazz Lineup to Win

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before Cuban dance band Los Van Van took the stage at dusk, the loudest ovation on the second day of the 20th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, held Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, came when Michael Jordan sank the winning basket for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals, an event being watched on portable televisions throughout the amphitheater. Clarinetist Pete Fountain, zinging through “Honky-Tonk Town” at the time, smiled at the cheers, perhaps thinking they were for him.

In a setting where bands are judged on how they engage the audience, Los Van Van’s intense physical performance focused a near sell-out crowd on dancing after some five hours of detachment. Without the presence of the 15-piece Cuban band, which made its first Playboy appearance here last year, the closing day of the festival would have been without a defining moment.

Sunday’s edition had none of the built-in drama of Saturday’s opening day, with its showdown between the combos of New Orleans-bred trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Wynton Marsalis. Nor did it have the wide diversity of Saturday’s mixed bag, a program that ranged from jump band to Juju music.

On Saturday, Marsalis got fans marching fervently in the aisles with a traditional New Orleans blues attributed to jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. On Sunday, Fountain got halfhearted hankie waving with “Basin St. Blues.” Even emcee Bill Cosby, after telling the audience he’d keep them posted on the basketball game (he didn’t), disappeared before the sun set.

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Luckily, there was Los Van Van. The ensemble’s big sound, generated by the trombone section, two violins, a pair of synthesizers and flute, was propelled by dense, insistent percussion. Three- and four-part vocal harmonies from Pedro Calvo, Mario Rivera, Roberto Hernandez and bassist-arranger Juan Formell added extra depth. The singers took turns soloing in front of the band, some adding hip-hop touches to the traditional call and response. Little of the instrumental improvisation associated with jazz-brief bits from flutist Jorge Leliebre and pianist Cesar Pedroso surfaced during Los Van Van’s set, but the constantly changing rhythmic surface had everything to do with jazz interplay.

Los Van Van proved a hard act to follow. Fusion super-group Fourplay, performing for only the second time with guitarist Larry Carlton (who replaced Lee Ritenour), came on just when the audience reached a fever with Los Van Van. Hopes that Carlton might bring more of an edge to the easy grooves of keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason weren’t realized. Vocalist El DeBarge joined the group for a painful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”

Closing act Little Feat has the distinction of being the most decidedly rock ‘n’ roll band to play in the festival’s history. Their Southern-fried readings of tunes from Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, their staple “Dixie Chicken” and songs from a forthcoming album gave folks something to bounce to on their way out.

The day’s most challenging music came early from saxophonist Kenny Garrett with his hard-charging alto play, and pianist Silvano Monasterios, winner of the Cognac Hennessy Jazz Search, whose impassioned style got the day off to a promising start. The six tubas of Howard Johnson’s Gravity blended beautifully on Gil Evans’ inspired arrangements. Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater brought a note of class to the proceedings, working with both her quartet and drummer Louie Bellson’s Big Band Explosion. Percussionist Sheila E.'s beat ensemble tried to get the party off to an early start with Latin-flavored R&B; and E.'s explosive drum solo.

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