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The Playboy Jazz Festival: Legends and (Unsung) Heroes:

Last weekend, an ever-faithful flock of jazz, blues, and world music lovers gathered for the 30th annual Playboy Jazz Festival (PJF) at The Hollywood Bowl. The two-day affair was not only a celebration of jazz music, but also a de facto study of the far-reaching influence of this most seminal of American musical genres. Richard S. Rosenzweig, PJF’s Executive Producer since its inception, told the Mirror in an exclusive interview that even though the festival has for years included many other styles that, strictly speaking, would not be considered, at least from a purist standpoint, jazz, many artists currently enjoying success in other genres trained in jazz and as a point of pride still consider themselves jazz musicians. “A lot of R&B groups feel their base is in jazz,” Rosenzweig observed. If nothing else, PJF is dedicated to keeping the torch of jazz ever-lit, while still rolling with the changing times, a tough balancing act given the mercurial musical taste of the American public. Interestingly, many of the newer or lesser-known artists who appeared over the weekend are doing a better job of keeping that flame lit than some of the heavy hitters whose sets were, to be kind, somewhat uninspired.

Over the years, PJF has featured a who’s who of the jazz world, from Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie to contemporary artists such as Joshua Redman and Wynton Marsalis. Given its pedigree of showcasing both jazz greats and up-and-comers (many of who eventually became jazz greats themselves), the PJF itself indeed begs a larger question: what exactly is jazz today?

As evidenced by this year’s line-up, jazz has both influenced and absorbed a multiplicity of musical styles. Some of these marriages are made in heaven, especially the Latin and Afro-Cuban artists. These acts prove that the complex, exuberant, rhythmic structures of traditional Latino music are right at home driving the intricate compositional demands of jazz, even at it’s loosest and most improvisational. In yet another nod to stylistic hybridization, the Pancho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band performed with legendary Stax singer/songwriter/producer Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”). Still in great voice and looking dapper and youthful in a sharp white suit, Eddie knocked it out of the park, and Pancho’s versatile outfit played Latin jazz, funk, and classic horn-driven Stax R & B with equal skill and enthusiasm.

Indeed, the Latin acts ruled the day, as their vibrancy and showmanship were ideally suited to a venue as large as The Hollywood Bowl. Given both the size of the amphitheatre and the length of the days (over eight hours both Saturday and Sunday), some acts, especially those performing early in the line-up, would probably have fared better in a smaller place. Robert Glasper, a gifted pianist and witty raconteur who performed in a trio with bass and drums, was at the mercy of a crowd that, although appreciative, was still settling in for the day. Also, given his inventive and artful compositions (when’s the last time a jazz guy did an arrangement of Herbie Hancock and Radiohead in the same tune?), it’s clear that Mr.Glasper would thrive in a more intimate environment. Still, you get asked to play PJF, whatcha gonna do? Say no?

Representing both the female contingent and traditional big band jazz, the all-girl Sherrie Maricle & The DIVA Jazz Orchestra swung hard on the old school stuff, and, capable players that they are, also did a fine job with contemporary funk. Ms. Maricle even offered Mr. Hefner the entire band to pose nude in Playboy, an offer that met with both Hef’s and the crowd’s unequivocal approbation. Also well worth mentioning on the traditional side was the Hamilton High School Jazz Ensemble. Said Mr. Rosenzweig, “If you close your eyes, you’d think you were listening to Count Basie.” And he’s absolutely right. Musical Director Dan Taguchi should be proud of the kids and himself for inspiring such a clear love of jazz in young people.

It was also a pleasure to see the 83-year-old sax legend James Moody, the last of the bebop giants, still in top form, ably abetted by trumpeter Terence Blanchard and a top-notch band. Mr. Moody is an inspiration, and living proof that, if you love what you do, you can swing forever.

The three remaining big name acts on Saturday were a mixed bag: Dr. John’s set was flat and uninspired, and Al Jarreau seemed unfocused and somehow disconnected. His opening monologue included a rather vicious salvo squarely aimed at hardcore rap and much of hip hop, and while many obviously shared his opinion, it was both self-aggrandizing and mean-spirited to take a shot at other artists at a festival whose mandate clearly includes promoting unity within the musical community. Tower of Power (TOP), however, was a much different story.

The venerable Oakland soul band, now celebrating its 40th year in show biz, opened with one of their hits, “We Came To Play,” and indeed, as always, they did. The TOP horn section has played and toured with countless musical household names (Elton John, Little Feat, Heart, Lyle Lovett, Spyro Gyra…) in styles ranging from jazz to pop to straight-ahead rock n’ roll. TOP turned the concert into a party, and their chops, showmanship, and sheer joy were not to be denied.

Sunday’s highlights included a terrific set from Plena Libre, a large ensemble playing traditional Puerto Rican music with strong jazz overtones that got the audience on their feet and many a derriere swaying in rhythm.

Keb’ Mo’, arguably the most important traditional blues artist in the country, played roots music in a way that deeply connected to its emotional and musical core, while effortlessly making that music feel fresh and contemporary, a tribute to both his artistry and the enduring power of the blues. A number called “Spend All My Money on You” neatly encapsulated his genius: A traditional 16-bar set-up with vocals, smoothly segueing into a riff on Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man,” into a sweet, clean guitar break, back into the Muddy riff, one more verse, and then a 12-note downbeat blues ending. Whew! The band, particularly the multi-talented Jeff Paris on keys, harmonica, and mandolin, also deserve big kudos.

Herbie Hancock’s set was a sampler of his varied and adventurous musical career, and featured a guest appearance from sax great Wayne Shorter and a spirited version of his dance-groove hit, “Rockit,” featuring a group of young, impossibly flexible dancers from Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy, that brought the audience to its feet.

For those whose taste runs to a mellower groove, festival-closer Guitars and Saxes, the ensemble put together by keyboard player Jeff Lorber and guitarist Jeff Golub, proved that so-called “smooth jazz” can have both vitality and musical variety. The “smooth jazz” label often has pejorative connotations (Kenny G in a dentist’s waiting room – that sort of thing), but in a post-show interview, sax player Gerald Albrecht made it clear that it was a designation they were proud of, and was indeed different from “fusion jazz,” the movement in the late 70’s spearheaded by artists such as Weather Report, Pat Metheny, and Lorber’s old band. But at the end of the day, for all of them, it’s not about labels, its about playing great music that makes people happy.So the PJF once again provided a weekend of great entertainment where jazz lovers undoubtedly found something to suit their musical taste, and hopefully discovered something new in the process. It is a credit to our community that the festival’s base of operations, as well as some of Playboy’s other enterprises, is right here in Santa Monica; the message of the enduring power and influence of jazz largely emanates from our little town by the sea.

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