Playboy Jazz Festival
This past weekend the Playboy Jazz Festival celebrated its 34th anniversary with two days of bands, both jazz and otherwise. It was also a farewell to Bill Cosby, who would be MCing for the last time. The crowd came prepared to party and even caught some of the music between jello shots.
I arrived at the well-sauced Hollywood Bowl in time for a boisterous set from the Soul Rebels brass band. Dressed in their finest barbeque threads, which included trumpeter Julian Gosin in a Lebron James jersey, the band blasted out their brand of New Orleans funk aided by some N'awlins ringers: guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the Meters, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and vocalist Ivan Neville. The band worked the sound system to its fullest, giving Nocentelli plenty of room to shred on a rousing “Big Chief” as crowd members danced with their parasols.
The Global Gumbo All Stars followed on the rotating stage, replacing the party vibe with a serious jazz cat vibe. Unfortunately the crowd didn't follow and for much of pianist Alfredo Rodriguez's intro the sound man didn't follow either. The band, which also consisted of guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Richard Bona and drummer Francisco Mela, played a set of worldly jazz dipping into Cuban and African rhythms.
Subtlety is not well suited for the Hollywood Bowl. With 18,000 people socializing and imbibing it's hard to compete for their attention. The chatter was overpowering but the band perked up when Loueke dug into a kora vibe. Although immensely talented the band was better suited for a venue the size of the stage as opposed to the sprawling amphitheater.
Sharon Jones, on the other hand, is no stranger to getting a crowd going. As the shade overtook the venue, she and her ten-piece Dap Kings played a set of burning soul that by the end had the crowd dancing in the aisles. Ian Hendrickson-Smith bellowed his baritone saxophone amid the horn lines, drawing a heavy funk in the process. A version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” brought the white handkerchiefs back out, continuing the second line feel of the Soul Rebels.
Christian McBride, a former jazz director for the LA Phil, returned to the Bowl with his 17-piece big band. Riding high off a recent Grammy win, McBride worked his band through a series of standards including “Darn That Dream” before introducing vocalist Melissa Walker for some straight-ahead readings of “When I Fall In Love” and “The More I See You.” This was the festival at its swinging best and by that point a majority of the attendees were actually facing the stage.
For much of the day Cosby sat in a chair by the side of the stage, announcing the new bands without even getting up. He seemed like a man who was days from retirement. His sweatpants, tucked in shirt and flip-flops made him look like a college freshman rattled by a dorm fire-drill, but an invite from McBride brought the Cos front and center to sing “Hikky Burr,” the theme song to the original Bill Cosby show from the late '60s. Cosby sprung to life with the nonsense lyrics, strutting around the stage and dropping his inimitable Cosby-isms.
The band closed with “In a Hurry,” the opening track from McBride's 1995 debut Gettin' To It. For the entire set McBride had young bassist Ben Williams standing by his side, taking over bass duties during his stage patter. The finale was Williams' chance to strut his stuff. After nearly everyone in the band took a lightning fast solo, Williams and McBride battled in rapid-fire phrases.
Sheila E was a crowd pleaser. Looking exactly as she did 25 years ago, Ms. Escovedo took to the stage amid thunderous applause. As the band broke into a deep samba, a parade of about 20 dancers circled in front of the stage decked out in their Brazilian best. Timbales, bouncing synthesizers and frenetic horns got much of the crowd on their feet.
Midway through her set she walked around the box seats handing out autographed sheets of paper (Glossies? Resumes? It was hard to tell from my vantage point) while the band bashed through an energetic '80s rock thump. She was joined by her father Pete Escovedo for a couple of numbers including his strange bid for Tony Bennett status, crooning “Fly Me to the Moon” in his salmon-colored jacket and Benedetto-like phrasing.
The rest of the set played out like a revived Santana show featuring rock star poses and shredding guitar solos, as every light on the stage flashed wildly.
Personal Bias: “Jager, peach schnapps and cranberry juice!” yelled a benchmate. I had never heard any of those words spoken at a jazz show before.
The Crowd: 18,000 people trying to eat food in their laps, many of them wearing pink, even more sparking a joint.
Random Notebook Dump: The term “Jazz festival” should always be in quotes. They include jazz but are no means geared towards the average jazz fan. Filling the Hollywood Bowl is not an easy task and as far as compromise goes, this festival continues to keep most everyone happy. It will be interesting to see the changes next year without Cosby.