When the nonstop Playboy festival gets in a real groove, with one act feeding upon the energy of the previous one, it becomes an irresistible force — never mind the abrupt changes in style and idiom. It is a sobering thought, though, that most of those who kept the streak going Sunday were veterans recharging their performing batteries. The passing of Ella only underlined the point that jazz’s giants — the ones who get inside your soul and haunt your dreams — are not being succeeded by new younger ones with their own visions. It’s great that those who are left can still burn, but where do we go from there?
In any case, Sunday’s streak started in midafternoon with a rare and triumphant appearance by trombone giant J.J. Johnson. Though working in a standard-issue post-bop medium, he freshened it with his clear and bold, swinging, eloquently original soloing — and his sextet was lifted by the bop steel drums of Othello Molineaux and Bruce Cox’s propulsive drumming.
TX:Presented by Playboy Enterprises Inc. Wayne Shorter sounded reborn in the wake of a horrific set at the House of Blues last fall — thanks to more complex drumming, a smaller-sized group, less reliance on structure, more color in the electronic textures, and most of all, a re-energized Shorter wailing at the top of his lungs on tenor and soprano saxes.
Emcee Bill Cosby’s Cos of Good Music II was a cooker of a soul-jazz group, with the savvy saxes of Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine, organists Charles Earland and Joey DeFrancesco, a very soulful Kevin Eubanks on guitar, and Bernard (Pretty) Purdie’s drums reaching deepest into the pocket on “Put It Where You Want It.” Alas, Cosby drained the life out of the set by calling for an inert “Georgia on My Mind” at the close.
The most anticipated set, Chucho Valdez and Irakere’s first major U.S. gig in 16 years, revealed a loud, accomplished, rhythmically complex kaleidoscope of Afro-Cuban sound — nothing revolutionary, but fascinating all the same. Valdez’s elaborately tumbling piano is far more dominant than we were led to expect, and Cesar Lopez is a whale of an alto sax player. Toward the end, Irakere seemed totally focused upon getting the crowd excited and out of its seats — which the group did, with masterful command of mob psychology and timing.
How could Stanley Clarke follow this? Reading the audience perfectly, he opened with a thundering, terrifically driving opening solo on electrified standup bass, and proceeded to conduct a clinic on ballsy yet mature and articulate electric jazz — including the best rendition of his classic riff, “School Days,” I’ve heard yet.
While Gladys Knight played the R&B diva to the hilt, and the crowd loved it, it seemed very calculated — plastic soul for the masses. Yet silver-clad Brian Setzer’s weighty, disciplined big band rockabilly — imagine Count Basie meeting Duane Eddy at Carl Perkins’ place — had style, attitude and stomping swing, a great way to close the night.
Saturday’s edition did not soar as high as Sunday’s, but there were passages of distinction. Top honors went to the chameleonic veteran, Lalo Schifrin, whose ad-hoc, sharp-sounding big band was fronted by trumpeter Jon Faddis’ electrifying flurries, Tom Scott’s eloquent sax and flute and Schifrin’s own galvanizing piano. The music at hand was Schifrin’s inventive 1961 concerto for Dizzy Gillespie, “Gillespiana,” whose pulsating finale planted the seeds for future Schifrin excursions like the timely encore –“Mission: Impossible.”
While one could argue that Tony Bennett isn’t really a jazz singer, his backing trio was pure jazz — and Bennett’s upper range sounded positively rejuvenated. Not only that, surprise walk-on guest Joe Williams joined Bennett for a few jovial duets, bringing Bennett further into the festival’s orbit.
As on Sunday, one of the most anticipated sets was a Latin jazz act — that of Eddie Palmieri. But this time the results were disappointing; the band couldn’t get a groove going, and sound problems with Palmieri’s keyboard halted the music entirely for awhile. Joe Lovano, on the other hand, was ripping good, with a smoldering set that carefully flirted outside the chord changes at times.
Say what you will about Fourplay’s commercial instincts, these guys (Bob James, Lee Ritenour, Nathan East, Harvey Mason) could sneak in some tasty licks — Ritenour particularly — amidst the latenight mood jazz. Michael Brecker’s tenor sax could get hot over the commanding chords of the fest’s most-copied pianist, McCoy Tyner, while the Yellowjackets’ current thing — bop-flavored Fuzak — burned at a lower temperature, petering out entirely at the end, in league with Dianne Reeves and a curiously uninvolving gospel choir.