Review: The Bad Plus, Cecile McLorin Salvant add notes of brilliance to an overcast Playboy Jazz Festival

Jon Batiste & Stay Human perform at the 38th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Dillon Deaton / Los Angeles Times)

Sunscreen, chardonnay and maybe a beach ball or two are usually among the must-have accessories for most attending the Playboy Jazz Festival. This weekend, however, June gloom and a late afternoon mist conspired to add sweatshirts, red wine and candy-colored rain ponchos to the mix.

“Drink more wine!” festival host George Lopez repeated from the stage on Saturday after a buoyant early set from Honduras-born Garifuna artist Aurelio Martinez. “Atmosphere! It’s beautiful weather.”

And although an evening stroll through the Hollywood Bowl indicated the festival’s typically festive, near-capacity crowd needed no such encouragement, lower temperatures contributed to what at times felt like a more subdued 38th year of the festival, which prides itself on outbursts of dancing in the aisles and twirling hankies.

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A smattering of the latter were seen during the set by pianist Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human, who rose from afternoon scene-stealers in 2014 to first-day headliners two years later on the strength of joyful sets that strive for audience connection and, not coincidentally, a network gig as bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”


The breaking of barriers between audience and artist, which the 29-year-old Batiste (in a nod to Miles Davis) dubs “social music,” manifested in the hand-held jingle of keys he encouraged from the crowd to back him on Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues” and, somewhat more ingratiatingly, in a giddy run through the children’s classic “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Batiste’s breezy funk and R&B could sometimes meander and occasionally drifted over the top, as with one song that swelled to a bombastic lead from mustached saxophonist Eddie Barbash, but the band was never less than earnest in looking for a good time.

Far less successful was a puzzling evening set from Seth MacFarlane, the “Family Guy” creator and onetime Oscar host, who on the strength of a genuine love of Sinatra swing has released numerous albums of big band-backed vocal standards.

With a showbiz nonchalance, MacFarlane assured the crowd he wanted to “make sure everybody here gets their Groupon’s worth,” but he left little impact with his runs at “Why Should I Cry Over You,” a kitsch-laden “Mrs. Robinson” and a pointless reminder of the theme from “My Mother the Car.”

Though backed by a band above his station that included drummer Peter Erskine and saxophonist Bob Sheppard, MacFarlane’s set had the feeling of a live karaoke act, one that made the infectious, trance-like delirium of Cuba’s Los Van Van that followed all the more welcome. Little wonder the crowd quickly sprung from itsseats for a show of raw, globe-spanning expression rather than the slick presentation of a few songs somebody likes.

Pianist John Beasley offered a more fitting tribute to a vintage catalog with his MONK’estra, a band that views the rich catalog of Thelonious Monk as malleable raw material. Session favorite Terreon Gully powered the crooked rhythm behind “Epistrophy” and a rousing, New Orleans-rich “Green Chimneys.” “Evidence” rose from a slow-motion beginning into a storm of horns from Sheppard (who performed double-duty Saturday) and L.A.-by-way-of-Baltimore trumpeter Dontae Winslow, who punctuated his quicksilver turn with a freestyle rap that closed with the declaration, “real jazz.” And who could argue?

Thirteen-year-old pianist Joey Alexander proved his credentials as a crowd favorite with his set, which opened with two nods to John Coltrane in “Resolution” and “Giant Steps,” which stretched in Alexander’s hands until he stood at the keyboard to stay on top of it. An original piece, “City Lights,” offered some furious early moments before settling into a lighter vibe. The Grammy-nominated Alexander didn’t take home any awards earlier this year, but he has the skills to turn heads as he continues to build on his own voice.

Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant won a Grammy for jazz vocal album back in February, and she remains one of the genre’s most arresting vocalists. Her thoughtful takes on the ‘60s hit “Wives and Lovers” and a driving “John Henry” struggled against the festival’s chatty dinner hour. Still, Salvant’s version of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” was a tour de force with her voice rising from a husky purr to an airy lilt as pianist Aaron Diehl flickered in her wake like passing streetlights.

The Bad Plus’s 2015 album with saxophonist Joshua Redman is mostly well-removed from anything resembling dinner jazz. Redman — in a Warriors hat that pointed to his Bay Area roots — began by swerving through the easy melody of “As This Moment Slips Away,” but it was misdirection as the band had hardier terrain in mind.

Redman was a leg-kicking force of nature by the close of the set, leaning into his horn as the Bad Plus launched each exploration. The band challenged the crowd at each turn, all but demanding attention in “Faith Through Error,” which exploded out of a clattering solo from hard-hitting drummer Dave King, whose repeated, odd-angled stabs were echoed by pianist Ethan Iverson as Redman emerged to glide through the storm.

It was as bold and uncompromising as a jazz festival demands, and the crowd, whether in admiration or submission, whistled and clapped appreciatively with the band’s powerful venture outside. It was beautiful out there, after all.

Follow me @chrisbarton.


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