Fate ultimately dictated the context of what was planned as the gala 20th anniversary edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival. The music world at large was still mourning Frank Sinatra, who died almost exactly a month before the music started — and all of the artists on hand were encouraged to offer some kind of tribute. Yet on Saturday’s lineup, only one, Wynton Marsalis, really did — and it proved to be the emotional and musical high point of an often brilliantly sequenced program.
Although Sinatra never appeared at the Playboy Festival, and many spoilsports still question his connection with jazz per se, his position as one of the charter inductees of the Playboy Jazz Hall of Fame — and the fact that his music was the seductive soundtrack of the Playboy lifestyle — gave the festival an excuse to dedicate the event to him. Yet the celebration of Sinatra once again pointed to a troubling undertext, that the giants continue to fall and hardly anyone of real stature is emerging who can shake up the music and take it to new wonderful places.
There were a handful of half-baked “salutes” Saturday — a Royal Crown Revue rendition of “Something’s Gotta Give” with an inaudible vocal; Sinatra impressionist Bobby Caldwell aping “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” as the Arturo Sandoval Latin big band groped its way through the Nelson Riddle chart in a total mismatch of context. But Marsalis, and only Marsalis, caught the moment, shaped it, and made genuine, meaningful music from it.
Reuniting his scintillating septet after a four-year break, Marsalis made a bold choice for his sermon, a treatment of John Coltrane’s four-movement “A Love Supreme” that developed organically and left room for some impassioned, mournful solos from Marsalis that drew blood. It was jazz on a very high level, a requiem for Sinatra — and reading the crowd perfectly, as he has in his last several Playboy dates, Marsalis followed the service with a wake, the hip-shaking, high-stepping, New Orleans Dixieland “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” that brought out the waving white handkerchiefs. Although his quizzical closer from “Citi Movement” might have seemed anti-climactic, Marsalis served word with it that he wants to pick up the torch from the giants — and with his emerging eloquence as a writer, he just may do it.
Scheduled right before Marsalis, Nicholas Payton’s Quintet might have seemed like Marsalis’ opening act on paper. But Payton’s set was an enormous leap ahead of his appearance here in 1997 — from the forthright Blue Note-style “Zigaboogaloo” to his more open-hearted Louis Armstrong homage on “Wild Man Blues” and tenor sax Tim Warfield’s hard-nosed work everywhere. The other hardcore jazz set of the day, Billy Higgins’ All-Stars, was another winner, with deep, fiery solos from veterans Harold Land and Oscar Brashear on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and combustible drumming from the leader, now happily recovered from a liver transplant.
With the temperature at the beginning of the afternoon at a near-perfect low 70s, Higgins was succeeded by a pair of R&B acts. First the ersatz — the spiffy-outfitted Royal Crown Revue fronted by Bill Haley-lookalike lead singer Eddie Nichols, which blended stylistic elements from swing to punk into an energetic, competently swinging but curiously stiff retro act lodged somewhere in the ’50s. That merged into the real deal — Ruth Brown, with a smart soul band in tow, still punching out the vocals in a crisp, sassy way at 70, preceded by Ron David Jackson’s authentic rendition of “Tell It Like It Is.”
The L.A. County High School For the Arts Jazz Band’s surprisingly potent Afro-Cuban montunos led off the Latin jazz activities of the day, sometimes proving more than a match for what followed. In the West Coast debut of his new Hot House Tour big band, Arturo Sandoval could not achieve liftoff, losing momentum due to long pauses between numbers, plagued by terribly overbearing congested sound, and when he tried to rip, his band often overpowered his high-powered horn — no mean task. Yet Sandoval remained an ebullient presence, and the band was tight, though not given imaginative charts to work with.
With the hardest-working man in the Latin jazz biz, Poncho Sanchez, you knew what to expect, vintage salsa from a classic eight-piece combo — with perennial emcee Bill Cosby irrepressibly adding outboard percussion support — solid conga work from the conguero leader, and the high emotion of Marsalis’ set channeled and transformed by the swinging party beat.
Every Playboy festival brings in a stylistic ringer or two — and this year, once again, King Sunny Ade was the ringer of choice. After sounding a hard, raucous, overly frenetic tone at first, Ade’s colorful 18-member Nigerian ensemble soon found its bearings — the quiet, insistently jiggling juju grooves settling into place, the vocals mellowing, the intricate complexities of the percussion and oddly affecting steel guitar finally emerging through the sonic murk. Really, something has to be done about the sound at the Bowl; many of the artists can’t be heard properly and the poor consumers only get a muddled impression of their music for their money.
Savvy showman that he is, Al Jarreau had no trouble placing a solid cap on the evening, maintaining the energy level inherited from Sanchez. With some often beautiful synthesizer work from Freddie Ravel leading the way, Jarreau concentrated on his unique rhythmic flexibility as a scatter in “Take Five” and quality R&B hits like “We’re in This Love Together.” His band also gave us an erudite music lesson, with passages of Albeniz and Rodrigo leading up to Chick Corea’s “Spain.” The well-synchronized fireworks display during “Roof Garden” was probably meant to be the socko climax, but the most memorable thing about the set was the gentle closer, a gorgeous, Brazil-ian-accented treatment of “Stella by Starlight” that left us wandering into the night, haunted.
All told, quite a nice day — for the partyers, the sun-worshippers and the music lovers too.