Review: ‘Playboy Jazz Festival: Day One’

If Saturday's edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival bore any resemblance to a barometer of the state of jazz's artistic health, one would think seriously about calling the paramedics for a blood transfusion. The fact is that so-called non-jazz acts such as Bruce Hornsby, John Lee Hooker and Los Van Van showed more vitality and aroused more crowd reaction --- the latter two in idioms dating back more than 40 years! --- than almost any of the jazzers. And brother, that's not good news for jazz. First, though, let's emphasize that the Playboy Festival has rarely been in tune with what passes for the current pulse and direction of jazz. That's not their mission. The goal here has always been diversity --- which is not a bad thing at all, for diversity attracts big audiences (they racked up another sellout Saturday) and often throws a welcome monkey wrench into the expectations of rigid purists. Still, the ease with which the jazz acts were overshadowed was distressing.

Exhibit A: when the Nicholas Payton Quintet gave way to the Roy Haynes Group at the beginning of the day, were it not for perennial emcee Bill Cosby’s intro, you would have had trouble knowing when one group was finished and the next one took over. Both combos — the first led by a Young Lion, the second by an Old Tiger — were stuck in the mainstream’s post-bop timewarp.

Payton, who sounded so fresh with the Kansas City All-Stars earlier this year, remains an unimaginative leader on his own, content to conduct a rambling set of hard bop verities and rituals, with sideman Jesse Davis recycling some Cannonball Adderley riffs on alto sax. Only on “Wild Man Blues” did Payton approach the majesty of which he is capable. Within the restricted idiom, tenor man Craig Handy was clearly the most inventive thing about drummer Haynes’ quartet.

Things began to look up when Gato Barbieri — making a comeback at 62 after a period of illness and bereavement — unleashed healthy, scorching wails on tenor sax that could strip paint, reminding us of his Wild Bull avant-garde youth. Backed by a groovin’ Latin combo, howling between solos, Barbieri was genuinely thrilling — he even seemed to clear the gloomy skies overhead — until one realized, as the set wore on, that he had few other tricks up his sleeve, for his basic tone and approach never varied.

A carefree Bruce Hornsby then turned in probably the most intriguing blend of the day, a jigging polyglot of rock, jazz, gospel and soul within which Hornsby rattled out some thoroughly competent, rollicking piano boogies. He sang some recent hits, even did a tune from his Grateful Dead gig in the ’90s, yet everything fit joyously into the context of a jazz festival.

A chugging warmup by John Lee Hooker’s Coast To Coast Blues Band led to the appearance of the old master himself, just doing what he’s always done — the obsessive moaning, the flashes of stinging electric guitar. The Hook seems less menacing nowadays but his charisma is undimmed, and his powerhouse band could take care of business by whipping up a tough electric boogie.

After Hornsby and Hooker, the much-anticipated West Coast debut of Joe Henderson’s big band seemed staid and pat, almost an anachronism. Henderson himself was in fine, searching form on tenor sax but his Bay Area bandsmen plowed through his densely harmonized charts without any force and little cohesion, not helped by the diffuse sonics.

Los Van Van, the Cuban dance band that was locked out of the U.S. by politics until January, immediately grabbed the crowd’s attention and never let up, keeping hundreds of revelers on their feet.

After some preliminary near-screaming vocals, the flashy Chaka Khan offered a rapprochement with the jazz crowd with a decent electronic translation of “A Night In Tunisia.” But with the onset of the famous rap intro to “I Feel For You,” plastic soul took over.

It remained for Grover Washington Jr., the perfect suave late-night host, to put the seal on the evening with his usual smooth, winelit Fuzak. But Washington, possibly the only major sax soloist who uses all four types of saxophones on one gig, did turn in some inventive work on baritone sax in “Blues for D.P.,” played in memory of the late Johnny (Hammond) Smith.

Playboy Jazz Festival: Day One

Hollywood Bowl; 17,979 seats;$75 top


Presented by Playboy Enterprises


Nicholas Payton Quintet, Roy Haynes Group, Gato Barbieri, Bruce Hornsby, John Lee Hooker and the Coast To Coast Blues Band, Joe Henderson Big Band, Los Van Van, Chaka Khan, Grover Washington Jr., Multi-School Jazz Band. Emcee: Bill Cosby. Reviewed June 14, 1997.
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