The question surely came up at some point during last year’s Playboy Jazz Festival, which saw the retirement of its longtime master of ceremonies: Can there be a festival without Bill Cosby?
Of course, it’s just a rhetorical notion because the festival was never solely about Cosby, who was always a comforting (and comfortable) presence at the side of the stage, whether interjecting elements of goofy fun into the gathering’s yearly roster of high school jazz bands or playfully sitting in on percussion with his ad-hoc band, the Cos of Good Music.
The Playboy Jazz Festival is first and foremost a party, and while Cosby was always the perfect host, the show’s menu of straightahead jazz, soul and smooth grooves as well as regular nods to Latin jazz and global funk is the star. Comic and late-night host George Lopez steps into Cosby’s shoes for the festival’s 35th anniversary, and while he may not capture Cosby’s understated timing — few can — smart money is on the show hardly skipping a beat.
Playboy isn’t a top-down barometer of the state of jazz along the lines of what happens in Newport or even Monterey, but it’s never tried to be. Still, the festival draws intriguing talent each year, and this installment is no exception.
Ever-adventurous Grammy winner (in the R&B; category) Robert Glasper should be a fascinating listen on Saturday, particularly as his record “Black Radio” angled for mainstream appeal even as his shows remained rooted in jazz. The keyboardist may even offer glimpses of what’s next for his band the Experiment, which has been in the studio.
Saturday also offers saxophonist James Carter stepping into John Coltrane’s shoes with a tribute to his 1962 album “Olé" with Poncho Sanchez, soulful vocalist Gregory Porter (whose Blue Note debut is due in September) and the ever-busy Herbie Hancock in a return to his house as the L.A. Phil’s creative chair for jazz with the a capella group Naturally 7.
Sunday’s bill features more intriguing combinations in “rockjazz” keyboardist ELEW with the JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble and the Brubeck brothers in tribute to their father, the late Dave Brubeck. A reconvening of Bob James and David Sanborn along with Steve Gadd and James Genus are also on board for Sunday, as well as India.Arie, the raucous Trombone Shorty and festival veteran Sheila E. The players may change, but the party goes on.