There was a moment at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night when a question came to mind that felt a little like a Zen koan: If you hear a guitar solo but can’t see a guitar, did the solo really happen?
It’s the sort of thought perhaps associated with backing tracks and radio-ready pop, but this was the Playboy Jazz Festival, and the source was unquestionably live in the vocal group Naturally 7, which closed a set steeped with hip-hop and R&B; with an a cappella take on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Bass, drums and that aforementioned guitar were on hand, but the only instruments were amplified voices.
Was it “real,” or did it have a place on a jazz festival’s bill? Ask the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s creative chair for jazz, Herbie Hancock, who joined the group on a hip-slung key-tar for a medley of “Watermelon Man,” “Chameleon” and “Rockit” before the pairing lighted up the crowd with a rowdy take on the Temptations’ “Get Ready.”
This sort of giddy disregard for borders is part of what makes the Playboy Jazz Festival a Southern California tradition, albeit one that offers uneven pleasures for jazz purists. This year’s 35th installment constituted a transitional year for the festival, which last year saw the retirement of beloved longtime host Bill Cosby. In his place was comic George Lopez, who mostly adhered to Cosby’s model of less-is-more as emcee, delivering a few wryly rowdy quips as the stage turned from one act to another.
“Keep drinking,” Lopez shouted to the crowd in the warm Saturday afternoon. “They can’t catch us all!”
A shift in musical tastes between hosts was perhaps acknowledged as Lopez was welcomed on Sunday with a few measures of “Low Rider” performed by the LAUSD Beyond the Bell Jazz Band, which sent the host shuffling across the stage. (The L.A. County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble opened the day Saturday.)
Still, despite the festival’s enduringly festive atmosphere, it’s striking how quaint it can seem. Longtime fans reconnect while in line, food and wine (and other spirits) are shared across aisles and the ever-present sun binds a diverse crowd into a celebratory, even communal atmosphere.
Amid such good vibrations, it can be difficult for an artist to rise to the surface. Cuban-born percussionist Pedrito Martinez got hips swiveling early on Saturday, and 21-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly joined veteran altoist Phil Woods in an swinging set that also featured local pianist Josh Nelson.
Self-described “rockjazz” pianist ELEW fared better in competing for attention Sunday afternoon, and it was no accident. Born Eric Lewis, the former sideman for Wynton Marsalis and Elvin Jones stood like a guitar hero while playing as the JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble occasionally bounded around him. Wearing a pinstriped jacket and silver metallic wrist cuffs that seemed borrowed from “Game of Thrones,” ELEW alternately glared and grinned at the crowd through chunky covers from the rock songbook, including nods to the Doors, the Cranberries and, boldest of all, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
ELEW’s outro was maybe the weekend’s most left-field moment, as he unleashed a wall of dance-music bombast from a laptop straight out of the anthemic playbook of Swedish House Mafia, punctuated with occasional piano runs and digital scratching. The transition to the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, who paid elegant tribute to their father, Dave Brubeck, with pianist Chuck Lamb, bordered on surreal.
More understated, the soulful vocalist Gregory Porter confirmed his standing as an artist to watch on Saturday. Dressed in a crisp white jacket, the ebullient Porter nodded to his L.A. roots on 36th and Normandie before “On My Way to Harlem,” an energetic recounting of his jazz roots that gave way to a quicksilver solo from saxophonist Yosuke Sato.
Angelique Kidjo furthered the weekend’s convivial spirit by pulling some of the crowd onstage during a set that also featured Hugh Masekela’s bright fluegelhorn. Led by an insistent Afropop pulse, Kidjo had one of Saturday’s most energetic sets as she led many of her impromptu backing dancers to square off with her percussionist.
One of the biggest stories in jazz last year, the Robert Glasper Experiment made no concessions to a dinner hour time slot. Opening with Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” Glasper touched on his Grammy-winning album “Black Radio” in an elastic “Cherish the Day” and “Afro Blue,” which featured a guest turn from vocalist Dianne Reeves.
Glasper’s take on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” added a new level of funk to the French-born original and his late-set dedications to the late J Dilla and Mulgrew Miller split the difference between two of his influences. The group closed with an odd-angled cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” led by a mbira-like lead from Glasper that culminated with a vocoder-twisted scream from Casey Benjamin.
The glossy funk of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band made for agreeable dinner music joined by the expertly polished runs of guest Lee Ritenour, and a pairing of Poncho Sanchez and saxophonist James Carter billed as “Olé Coltrane” never entirely took off beyond an agreeable recast of “Giant Steps.” Strangely, for all the cognitive dissonance that comes with a “band” that often pantomimed playing its instruments, the meeting of Naturally 7 with Hancock may have been Saturday’s most memorable pairing.
Lance Bowling, a retired chef who said he came to the festival for all but one of its first 22 years before returning this weekend, struggled to file Naturally 7 in a genre. He finally gave up and said, “As long as it sounds good, right?”