The 23rd Playboy Jazz Festival finally found a groove on Sunday, in the second day of its weekend run at the Hollywood Bowl.
Credit the Los Angeles Latin group Ozomatli and the Nigerian Afro pop superstar Femi Kuti with propelling the festival into the sort of crowd-energizing interactivity that was largely absent from Saturday's opening performance. In fact, four of the five final acts--including David Sanborn and Isaac Hayes--offered dynamic challenges to the full-house audience, triggering the conga lines, dancing in the aisles and standing ovations that have been trademark elements at the event.
But where was the jazz in the Playboy Jazz Festival? Where was the jazz in a program that also featured rhythm & blues singer-guitarist Toshi Reagon (who proudly shouted, at ear-shattering decibel levels, "I don't know no jazz songs!") and the lounge-revival stylings of Keely Smith?
It was there, and it was good--what there was of it. Interspersed among the crowd-pleasing acts, performances by Wayne Shorter, Stefon Harris, Roy Hargrove and Bill Cosby's Cos of Good Music VI (as well as an opening set by the youthful winners of the Music Center of Los Angeles County's Spotlight Awards) provided authenticity and high quality.
But the emphasis upon pop jazz, world jazz, soul jazz and non-jazz obviously took precedence. The result was a more entertaining event, overall, than Saturday's program, but one in which the relative paucity of time allocated to unhyphenated jazz produced a day with a great deal of gloss and a minimum of substance.
Worse, the preponderance of artists making shameless appeals to the crowd's visceral qualities tended to place performers such as Shorter and Hargrove in awkward positions. Shorter, for example, leading a stunning, all-star ensemble that included pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, was positioned, at the dinner hour, between Ozomatli and Kuti. Shorter has not yet gotten this ensemble into a fully empathetic level of performance. But the playing, especially during a lengthy medley segment, was filled with distinction and individuality; the linkage between Shorter and Perez, in particular, promised great things for the future.
Sadly, however, most of the Shorter set drifted over a drinking and dining audience recovering from the rap-filled, Latin rhythm-driven music of Ozomatli's whirlwind presentation. Vibist Harris, appearing after the aggressive Reagon, also delivered a well-crafted set, with strong assistance from pianist George Colligan, but he too wound up playing primarily for the relatively small number of listeners in search of an unadulterated jazz experience.
Hargrove, who performed between Smith and Ozomatli, had similar problems. It wasn't until the closing numbers of his set, when his innate lyricism and fluid virtuosity finally broke through that he received some of the audience responsiveness he deserved. Even Cosby, who can usually be counted upon to stir up a crowd, couldn't quite garner any real focus for his all-star group, despite sterling work from, among others, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Ralph Moore, pianist Benny Green and trumpeter-trombonist James Morrison (whose amazing versatility was unnoted by Cosby and seemingly ignored by the audience).
Most festival presenters will argue that it's not possible to mount a large-venue, two-day jazz event without including an abundance of jazz-related or outright pop acts. Perhaps so. But on this day the balance clearly swung too far away from the music that is represented, after all, as the key word in the title of the Playboy Jazz Festival.