The 32nd Annual Playboy Jazz Festival had its typical big-name veterans play – George Benson, Marcus Miller, Chick Corea, Manhattan Transfer – but it was the lesser known performers who almost stole the show.
Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave. and Naturally 7 made their first appearances and the Pete Escovedo Orchestra its second at the Hollywood Bowl event on Saturday. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Esperanza Spalding (in her second appearance) and African singer Salif Keita sparked the crowd Sunday. But it was Benson – who recently turned 67 – who brought the crowd to a froth at the end of the festival with four straight dance-along hits, including “Turn Your Love Around,” “The Masquerade,” “Give Me the Night” and “On Broadway.”
The Playboy Jazz Festival was started by magazine publisher and jazz fan Hugh Hefner and marked its 32nd year at the Hollywood Bowl (the first one was in Chicago in 1959). Although Cosby was the host and the most visible, Hefner was still a presence at the event.
“I have to say, with great honesty, this has turned into a great deal more than I had anticipated,” said Hefner about the evolution of the festival since it started at the Hollywood Bowl in the late '70s. “The notion of doing a jazz festival on the 25th anniversary of the magazine at the Hollywood Bowl seemed too perfect. But it was intended at the time simply as a celebration of the 25th anniversary. It was so well received and embraced by the community that we got a taste of it and we couldn't stop. It turned into a community affair and here we are 32 years later, still dancing as fast as we can.”
The rookies certainly made their presence felt all weekend though, starting early in the first day.
Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews and his band performed third on Saturday after the El Dorado High School Band and innovative ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro. Andrews' band's performance was so electric and it left the audience in such amazement that the band was still talked about the day after.
“We come from New Orleans and its all about energy,” said Andrews. “Coming from playing in the street parades with no microphones for four or five hours and you're trying to battle with the other bands. So that type of energy just comes off. It's just one of those things with the rock influence we've got.”
Andrews played trombone, trumpet and sang in the seven-piece band that fuses jazz with rock, funk and ska. The highlight of the performance was Andrews on trumpet, holding a note for several minutes without stopping to breathe.
The hipster jazz singer Kurt Elling, hard bop tenor sax player Javon Jackson and guest Les McCann followed with solid sets and then came Naturally 7, an a cappella group who not only sing, but vocalize the sounds of instruments without actually playing them. Each member of the seven man group uses their voice to imitate instruments such as trumpet, flute, scratching, bass, drums, etc. They also sing beautiful harmonies. When they started their set with their version of the Phil Collins hit “In the Air Tonight,” the audience turned in amazement at what they heard. They continued to turn heads throughout their set: Warren Thomas (drums) and 'Hops' Hutton (bass) were so accurate in their reproduction of the low end, the building seemed to shake.
Bassist Marcus Miller's group followed with featured guest trumpeter Christian Scott. They played through some material from Miller's time with Miles Davis in the '80s and from his solo career. Two acts after Miller was Chick Corea — who celebrated his birthday on stage and was another frequent collaborator with Davis. His tight quartet excelled and featured drummer Roy Haynes, whose career dates back to 1947 and has included playing with Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and John Coltrane, to name a few.
The energetic Pete Escovedo Orchestra was the second-to-last act Saturday and brought everyone to their feet with their horn-and-drum-heavy Latin jazz set. Longtime percussionist and bandleader Escovedo played alongside son Peter Michael and daughter Sheila E., the latter two trading off singing and playing the drum set.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band played fourth on Sunday, after Cos of Good Music, Jazz Mafia's Brass Bows and Beats, and the Los Angeles District High School Band. Randolph's main instrument is a pedal steel guitar, which he's brought from the country and gospel genres and incorporated into jazz and funk. The band's set included tracks from his over 10-year career and his new album 'We Walk This Road,' which comes out next week. His band ripped through their set while their leader was giggling, smiling and chewing gum.
Singer/standup bassist Esperanza Spalding followed Randolph. She played her blend of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian jazz with a touch of Caribbean rhythms and scat singing at the festival last year and was invited back for an encore performance.
“It's great to be back,” said Spalding. “I felt like we learned a lot in the last year. It was nice to share the updated version of what we do and have a little bit longer to stretch out and really develop the arc of the show. I had a great time. Totally.”
The Irvin Mayfield New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and The Bobby Hutcherson and Cedar Walton Quartet played the next two sets, before Salif Keita and his group. Keita had to overcome a strict caste system and discrimination of albinos in his country to become one of the leaders in world music. His band played mostly traditional African instruments and he sang in Malinka, French and Bambara, winning over the crowd with his haunting voice and the band's pounding rhythms. Longtime festival emcee Bill Cosby even came onto the stage after their set and convinced them to do another song and they happily obliged, to the crowd's delight.
The Manhattan Transfer made their first appearance at the festival since 1992 and had a solid set, complete with their trademark harmonies and energy. After them came Benson – and surprise guest Earl Klugh. Cuban jazz group Tiempo Libre brought the annual festival to a close.