The annual Playboy Jazz Festival wrapped its 36th edition Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl with the usual blend of smooth sounds, searing sun and celebrities sitting in box seats (I see you, Tavis Smiley).
Our man Sean J. O’Connell wrote a thoughtful overview of the two-day program, but several acts – including George Benson and the not especially jazzy Fantasia -- performed after his deadline for Monday’s paper. Here are five thoughts on those late-breaking festivities.
1. José James is doing himself no favors. Last week the young New York singer released “While You Were Sleeping,” the anticipated follow-up to his excellent 2013 disc, “No Beginning No End.” A gorgeous extension of the trippy, behind-the-beat R&B that D’Angelo perfected on his “Voodoo,” James’ earlier album attracted notice well beyond the jazz world, and that scope-widening appears to have informed “While You Were Sleeping,” which pulls from folk, psychedelia and indie rock. But too often James allows Brad Allen Williams, a recent addition to his band, to slather the songs with rehearsal-room guitar shredding that totally harshes his deep-groove mellow.
The singer front-loaded his set Sunday with new material, and none of it sounded any better live; indeed, Williams’ weirdly aggro vibe seemed to work against James’ attempt to connect with a crowd whose conversation only grew louder to compensate for the unwelcome noise. The show improved when James did a handsomely understated cover of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful.” And it got downright soulful with a string of tunes from “No Beginning No End,” including “Do You Feel,” which James dedicated to all the dads celebrating Father’s Day at the Bowl. It was no beginning, but a very strong end.
2. Williams wasn’t Playboy’s only shredder – there was also Kevin Eubanks, the former “Tonight Show” bandleader who turned up Sunday in Dave Holland’s Prism. A screwed-tight prog-jazz quartet with a deep feel for funk, Prism – which also includes drummer Eric Harland and keyboardist Craig Taborn – made plenty of room for Eubanks’ riffing, the sharpness of which may have surprised listeners who only knew the guitarist as Jay Leno’s ingratiating sidekick. Properly supported here, though, the sound worked (even as many in the audience turned their attention to dinner).
3. Dr. Lonnie Smith ended his set with some showboating as well, though not on his usual Hammond B3 organ. Rather, the 71-year-old jazz veteran walked to the lip of the stage and ripped an impressive slap-bass-style solo on his electrified walking cane.
4. “I didn’t come to be cute for you,” Fantasia told the Playboy crowd in a kind of warning, and that much was clear: Prowling the stage with a thrillingly wild look in her eyes – very Liza Minnelli at times -- the “American Idol” alum tore through songs such as “So Much to Prove” and “It’s All Good” as though she couldn’t have cared less what the exertion did to her hair or makeup.
She dropped a bit of Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” into “Man of the House,” then said she wanted to take us to church for “Trust Him,” which she combined with “A Change Is Gonna Come”; she brought out Kelly Rowland to help her do “Without Me,” then danced – well, just walked around fiercely, really – as her backup singers strung together parts of several early-’80s hits from the Prince factory: Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” the Time’s “The Bird,” Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life.”
Though she didn’t seem worried in the slightest about it, Fantasia justified her presence at a jazz festival with a sweaty, melisma-drenched rendition of “Summertime.” But she was most impressive in “Lose to Win,” a song from last year’s underrated “Side Effects of You” that she described as “my testimony.” Singing about things getting worse before they get better, she stretched out the music in a way that felt relaxed and urgent at the same time, a woman never more comfortable than when recounting her troubles onstage.
5. Was Fantasia’s intensity contagious? George Benson made you think so. Appearing at the Bowl less than a year after his almost comically tossed-off performance last fall, the pop-jazz singer-guitarist brought a renewed vigor to slick easy-listening staples such as “Turn Your Love Around” and “Give Me the Night,” and he seemed genuinely stoked to duet with Earl Klugh – something he said he’d never done – on the latter’s characteristically breezy “Living Inside Your Love.” Benson even cut the well-set schmaltz of “This Masquerade,” his Grammy-winning take on Leon Russell’s tune, with an astringent little solo that suggested he hasn’t stopped thinking about his music just yet.