With only a few glitches, and some undeniable musical and emotional peaks — Wynton Marsalis on Saturday, Dr. John and Les McCann/Eddie Harris on Sunday — the 1993 Playboy Jazz Festival smoothly ran its course at Hollywood Bowl over the weekend.
Both marathon non-stop concerts played once again to sold-out houses at the 17,979-seat Bowl. Despite predictions of a scorching heat wave, the temperature never got above the low 80s.
In his last festival appearance before leaving office, Mayor Tom Bradley again presented perennial Playboy Fest emcee Bill Cosby with a plaque Sunday proclaiming June 12-13 Playboy Jazz Festival Weekend. Also, defeated mayoral candidate Councilman Michael Woo, a jazz buff who frequently attends the festival, could be seen cheerfully working the lower boxes Sunday afternoon as if the campaign had not ended.
The Horace Silver Silver/Brass Ensemble cancelled Saturday due to Silver’s double hernia operation earlier in the week. Silver was ably replaced by bassist Ray Brown, who assembled a mainstream quartet featuring the revered Milt Jackson on vibraphone.
Overall, the 1993 Festival promised to be — and in fact, was — an improvement over 1992’s edition, with its more diverse spectrum of idioms, bigger names, and greater number of debuts and special teamings. Still, the festival reflected a building crisis in jazz; the passing of the giants and the shortage of strong new leaders to take their place and push the music further.
New developments — the growing merger of hip-hop and jazz, for example — were not to be found amid the star turns, homages and imitations.
That is why Wynton Marsalis loomed larger than ever over the remainder of Saturday’s lineup. He has become one of the few prominent players who take risks , going deep into the past to find himself and create his own new music.
The Marsalis Septet’s challenging set Saturday was a breathtaking reminder of how far he’s come. Wynton’s first solo on “In The Sweet Embrace of Life” was a mournful yet proud clarion call, the most emotionally wrenching passage this listener has ever heard from him. He duplicated his 1991 popular triumph here with a joyous New Orleans Dixieland finale that shook the Bowl.
Dr. Dorothy Donegan was another Saturday standout, improving upon her 1990 appearance with a delightfully quirky, unpredictable series of quotes, fragments and pianistic deconstructions of pop standards.
The velvet savior
The booby prize went to the unintentional low comedy of Ray Anthony and his arthritic anthology of big band-era snatches, Bob and Ray’s “Mr. Square Music” routine brought to life. Mel Torme saved Anthony’s neck, bringing brighter charts for Anthony’s band and an extended drum workout on “Sing Sing Sing” for himself.
The rare joint appearance of Eddie Harris and Les McCann Sunday was a different kind of triumph, a reminder that there is plenty of gold to be found in the powerful yet overlooked soul-jazz of the ’60s. The now-shaved-headed Harris is a treasure, a tenor saxophonist with an instantly recognizable funky sound and style, and McCann remains a galvanic pianist who swung harder than anyone in the festival. Inevitably, they concluded their too-short set with a driving performance of their 1969 hit “Compared to What.”
Dr. John, Sunday’s jaunty fashion plate, got a raucous New Orleans syncopated beat going in an inspired Playboy debut, though oddly it didn’t rouse the laid-back sunbathers. He was succeeded by the swinging machine of Joe Zawinul, whose Zawinul Syndicate whipped up a mostly tasty world beat/electronic gumbo descended directly from his former group Weather Report.
Jarreau warmly greeted
Al Jarreau, greeted by a tremendous shout in his Playboy debut, showed much courage by singing only one big hit –“Boogie Down”– at the outset and then steering toward the more subtle, jazzier corners of his repertoire. Thus, he was able to take better advantage of his unique, rubbery vocal talent in tunes like “Take Five” and “Spain”– at the cost, perhaps, of wilder response.
Biggest disappointment Sunday: pianist McCoy Tyner’s Big Band, a swamp of dull, opaque charts surrounded by bristling solos that made the presence of a big band unnecessary. But after putting up with scads of Tyner imitators all weekend, it was nice to hear the real McCoy.