The Playboy Jazz mold was set a long time ago. Saturday openers are for socializing and getting the crowd up and moving. Sunday is where the bulk of the serious jazz ensembles and features will be heard. That framework continued unabated, at the 41st anniversary edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival June 8-9. That’s not to say that there were no challenging and rewarding sounds to be heard the first day, but it could be tough sledding. PJF veterans know that if they’re going to be there for the whole weekend, it helps to lay back and enjoy it.
The callow-but-spirited Valencia High School Vikings Two ‘n Four Vocal Jazz Ensemble, the all-woman Jazz in Pink group, and saxophonist Terrace Johnson, despite their merits were sacrificial lambs; background music for the throng filtering into the Bowl.
Veteran tenor saxophonist and composer Benny Golson invited close scrutiny. He has so many jazz standards to his name that a whole set of them is not egregious. At 90, he doesn’t have a lot of snap in his playing, but give him credit: he has more saxophone mojo than Dexter Gordon did in his last Bowl appearance at 65. His sterling quartet buoyed Golson, especially pianist Tamir Hendelman’s blues-rooted piano solos on “Along Came Betty” and “Blues March.” Drummer Roy McCurdy had fun with martial cadence and bebop for his peppery solo on that one.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard might learn something about compositional arc from Golson. His E-Collective band rambled through a set of originals that were largely static. We can’t attend Blanchard performances to just hear music. His albums are all broadsides at one moral outrage or another, so that’s what’s on his menu at any given time. Electronically mutating his horn didn’t make it sound any better. Nor did Sheila E’s thrashing of her cymbal stand after a furiously pounding timbales fusillade. Her set was relentless high energy except for a Marianne Williamson interlude where she commanded the audience to tell a stranger that you love them. Where Blanchard made the audience pine for the sound of a naked trumpet, Sheila’s funk overwhelmed the senses. Might as well get up and dance to that plodding beat.
Impassioned Benin singer Angelique Kidjo exceeded Sheila in energy and finesse. Her mélange of African roots music, Celia Cruz’s Afro-Cubanisme and the Talking Heads permutation made for excitement with musical complexity. If you tried to count out those time signatures, you found out what you’re made out of. For her impassioned vocals, her crack ensemble, the fascinating combinations and intersections of the music, she walked off with the day’s honors.
Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and the Flecktones had the thankless job of following Kidjo and preceding Sheila. The collective instrumental prowess of Fleck and his players (most of whom doubled on other instruments; how can anyone play piano and harmonica at the same time?) was jaw-dropping. In a way, Fleck and company are the Dave Brubeck Quartet of our era: brainy and quietly thrilling. But juxtaposed with a dynamic red-garbed singer who commanded the entire stage, the Flecks were merely interesting.
A good balance to the PJF wig-and-wail conundrum was achieved earlier by Patrice Rushen’s tribute to her late friend and mentor, Ndugu Chancler (1952-1918). Drummer for all seasons, his resume stretched from Miles to Michael, and the band touched on some of those junctures. Ernie Watt’s tenor saxophone took the point and Teri Lynne Carrington drove the drum chair. George Duke’s “Reach For It,” Jean Luc Ponty’s “Beyond the Wings of Time,” Weather Report’s “Tale Spinin’,” Santana’s “Amigos” gave an idea of Ndugu’s jazz span. In that context, it was a pleasure to shake booty to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
The tang of the Chancler Celebration had long worn off as Kool and the Gang ran through their hits, agitated every varmint in the Hollywood Hills, and sent more than a few of us to our cars early.