Review: ‘Playboy Jazz Festival’

Emcee: Bill Cosby.

Emcee: Bill Cosby.

In terms of drawing mammoth-size audiences for jazz, the Playboy Jazz Festival continues to be a terrific hit. In terms of being an important showcase for the evolution of jazz, though, the Playboy Fest is showing signs of hardened arteries–after only 14 summers.

Again, this annual mid-June marathon in the vast Hollywood Bowl was quickly sold out (as it has since 1980), packed solid on both Saturday and Sunday. Again , the atmosphere was like that of a huge block party welcoming in the summer, where the customers feel free to hop from box to box and seat to seat, to visit, drink, picnic, sunbathe and swat graffiti-covered beachballs around whenever the going onstage gets a bit heavy. And this year, the event would be broadcast live or on tape on NPR, APR and independent radio stations across the nation (KPCC-FM 89.3 carried it locally).

Over the years, the festival has been a mostly glitch-free event, one act giving way smoothly to the next via a revolving stage. The only serious technical mishap this time occured during Randy Brecker’s set Sunday when the sound shut off midway through a number called–don’t you just love it?–“What’s Your Bellyaching?”

And yet, one has the feeling that the Playboy Festival has become content to coast along on the good-time complacency that guaranteed sell-outs can breed. A major festival like this should use its mighty platform to lead, to create newsmaking events, to stretch the boundaries of jazz and not be afraid to provoke once in awhile–as the Playboy cautiously once did.

Admittedly, it’s getting harder these days as the giants of jazz pass on and their young successors mostly genuflect in tribute. Even so, 1992’s lineups looked dishearteningly ordinary when they were announced–and while Sunday’s lineup had several moments of ignition, Saturday’s turned out to be one of the weakest in memory.

The group with the most potential Saturday was a custom-made quintet of old pros, the Playboy All-Stars, where Jimmy Smith ripped some burning licks on his battered B3 organ and Clark Terry offered sly, subtle, if poorly miked commentary on flugelhorn. But the set blew its momentum twice with a nearly inaudible solo guitar spot by Kenny Burrell and some chaotic kibitzing from Bill Henderson and Joe Williams.

The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, a comer on the big band front, generated a lot of swing, if not absolute precision, in two sets, the second of which served as backing for Williams’ assured, now-gravelly vocals. Also serving double-duty was Yellowjackets in a sting-less set on its own and in back of Michael Franks, whose gently syncopating voice and wry songscompletely misread the let’s-boogie mood of the crowd.

For a veteran slugger like B.B. King, following all of this must have been like seeing a fastball up with nothing on it from a tired pitcher in the late innings. King easily smacked it out of the park with his usual tight, extroverted set, knowing exactly how to play to a stadium.

Sunday, another custom group took the honors for the most stimulating set. The bop-minded New York Jazz Giants played with the heat of an old-fashioned cutting session, as the monster frontline of trumpeters Jon Faddis and Tom Harrell, and saxophonists Lew Tabackin and Bobby Watson pushed, prodded and goaded each other in some heroic musical duels.

Though Michael Brecker had to cancel, dashing hopes of a Brecker Brothers reunion, brother Randy’s group–with the blossoming Bill Evans tenor sax and ever-resourceful Airto on percussion–offered unpredictable originals that joyously blurred the lines between rock and bop. The aging Preservation Hall Jazz Band proved wonderfully spry, churning out rollicking two-beat Dixieland in the sunshine–and at 81, Mario Bauza led his percolating, if backward-looking, Afro-Cuban Orchestra.

The Count Basie Orchestra, outrunning its ghosts by keeping its fervor intact and trying on a brief Latin excursion for kicks, did triple service on Sunday, backing Diane Schuur and the Manhattan Transfer. The Transfer’s four closely blended voices were in electric form as they kicked off their national tour–working first with a compact trio and then, in league with the Basie band, unveiling a great cover of Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.”

Alas, the undisputed crowd favorite was Grover Washington Jr., reliable master of hum-along Fuzak tunes who got the dancers jumping whenever his drummer switched on the pile-driving rock beat. Pavlov would have appreciated that.

Playboy Jazz Festival

(Hollywood Bowl, 17,979 seats, $ 65 top)


Presented by Playboy Enterprises, Inc.


Performers: (June 13) Manteca, T-Square, Michel Petrucciani Trio, Billy Cobham (featuring Ernie Watts), Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Joe Williams, Playboy Jazz All-Stars (Kenny Burrell, Red Holloway, Jimmy Smith, Grady Tate, Clark Terry), Yellowjackets, Michael Franks, B.B. King. (June 14): Hemet High School Band, T.S. Monk, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Randy Brecker (with Bill Evans), Mario Bauza Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, New York Jazz Giants, Count Basie Orchestra, Diane Schuur, Grover Washington, Jr., the Manhattan Transfer. Reviewed June 13 and 14, 1992.
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