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JVC fest: full of diversity, so-so on quality

Special to The Times

Anyone who loves jazz has to be pleased that music’s tent has become so vast over the last few decades. Smooth jazz, acid jazz, fusion, contemporary jazz, nujazz; jazz with infusions of rap, turntables and electronica; world jazz, Latin jazz and repertory jazz. And I’ve probably left out a few.

Whether that’s all good depends on your taste and/or your perception of what is or isn’t jazz. But the something-for-everybody view is surely healthier than the my-way-or-the-highway attitude that often has prevailed in the past.

That said, diversity does not guarantee quality -- a thought that frequently came to mind during the JVC Jazz Festival 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night.

The opening set by saxophonist Najee offered few surprises. Najee’s sound and style fit well within the established tradition of smooth-jazz saxophone music -- a pinched tone (on both alto and soprano instruments), improvising based on short riffs rather than invented melodies, and heavily back-beated rhythms. At one point, he resorted to the well-worn circular-breathing technique allowing the player to hold a note for a seemingly impossible length of time. No wonder that when Najee started his third tune, someone in a nearby box asked, “Hasn’t he already played this?”

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Singer Michael Franks, who has never fit easily into any single category, has written a few attractive, gently whimsical tunes, and he sang a trio of his most memorable -- “Popsicle Toes,” “The Lady Wants to Know” and “Eggplant” -- as well as “Under the Sun,” from his latest album, “Rendezvous in Rio.” The music was quietly engaging, perhaps a bit too laid-back for this program and this location, and hampered by Franks’ tendency to use similarly floating rhythm backing on almost every tune. But it was, nonetheless, a pleasant interlude in a high-intensity program.

The performance by the quartet Fourplay (keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Harvey Mason) was the musical highlight. Energized by East’s charismatic playing and singing (and, in one instance, whistling), driven powerfully by Mason’s drumming and the sneakily straight-ahead jazz of James, Fourplay thoroughly affirmed its capacity to bring imagination and creativity to the often predictable smooth-jazz paradigm.

Norman Brown’s Summer Storm mirrored Najee’s opening, with featured keyboardist Alex Bugnon and saxophonist Paul Taylor working similar styles in a similar manner with similar results. Fortunately, a pair of songs from the versatile Patti Austin saved the set, while further confirming the values of jazz multiplicity.


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