This year’s Playboy Jazz Festival was dedicated to crooner Joe Williams, who died earlier this year, with several performers paying tribute (often with his signature blues, “Every Day”) on Saturday. Sadly, Williams was only one of the jazz greats who passed on this year: Mel Torme (who went virtually unmourned except in the program book), Al Hirt, Michel Petrucciani, Horace Tapscott, Ernie Wilkins, Leon Thomas, etc. Yet amid the inevitable pall cast by memories of festivals past, there was just enough vital music-making by some crowd-savvy vets and a handful of young performers to keep the obits for jazz at bay a little longer.
The program was definitely front-loaded, with some of the best stuff rewarding the earlybirds. Perennial emcee Bill Cosby put together one of his better ad-hoc Cos of Good Music bands, and he had the good sense to leave it alone much of the time (though he didn’t bother to introduce the players). Saxophonist James Carter was on fire, using varied settings like a modified boogaloo rhythm or a Spanish vamp to launch scorching solos, even pushing milder-mannered saxmate Chico Freeman toward the outside. It was also a good opportunity to hear Kevin Eubanks, of “The Tonight Show,” in sharp, unleashed form on guitar.
Also burning fiercely was Chucho Valdes, the Cuban piano virtuoso who seems to be trying to make up for decades of politically imposed isolation. (He released another fine new Blue Note album, “Briyumba Palo Congo,” only a few days ago.) He didn’t do much that was innovative — his “Rhapsody In Blue” mambo conjured a 1955 Havana nightspot — but his technical feats were not only astounding, they made musical sense, and he swung irresistibly with his hot Cuban rhythm section.
The ongoing reunion of Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross is, alas, a mixed blessing. Hendricks remains a nimble-tongued, swinging bop-scatter, but Ross sounded very worn, and there was little question of who was carrying whom as they revived their cherished Lambert, Hendricks and Ross repertoire. Despite a miserable sound system that made hash of the words, they could still strike sparks, especially in the Basie numbers.
Youth then took its place in the setting sun — with mixed results.
To his credit, Joshua Redman is still trying to find his way out of the standards trap by mixing old songs with those of the rock/folk eras; he and his quartet scored best with a rendition of “Eleanor Rigby” that continues to grow more searching and combustible. But the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, a Playboy nod to the swing trend, offered little more than the usual hyped-up, one-dimensional, Bill Haley/Stray Cats-derived energy — with a side trip into ska — that sounded snazzy at first but quickly grew wearisome.
In his Playboy debut, the superb Brazilian singer/songwriter Ivan Lins opened with a percolating groove that has not been heard from him before. He then settled into his familiar idiom of inward, deeply evocative, hauntingly harmonized ballads sung in Portuguese. The harsh sound system didn’t do him full justice.
It was Dianne Reeves, always a capable singer but not an electrifying presence until now, who was able to seize the moment and lift this crowd to its feet. Midway through her set, her voice glistening, she caught onto a good Afro-Cuban percussion groove from her band and stuck with it, building to an exhilarating “Love For Sale.” Then a surprise ringer, George Duke, walked on and lifted everyone even higher with superbly funky electric and acoustic keyboard playing — and the conga lines were in motion.
Without missing a beat, that master showman Grover Washington Jr. performed a perfect segue, extending the Reeves’ band groove and gradually, carefully, cooling it down to his own mellow, gauzy treatment of “Take Five.”
Even if the rest of his set was pretty much the same old Grover’s Greatest Hits routine, except for a fairly straight-ahead blues for Joe Williams, that opening segue was amazing, and so was his flawless reading of the temperature of his audience.
The veteran electric bluesman Buddy Guy, now 62, is another master of audience control — and this time, with a relatively restrained, disciplined set, he didn’t have to leap into the seats to make his points. His clear vocals, proto-Hendrix blitzkrieg guitar work and ventures into the nether regions of sexual innuendo were more than enough to put a rousing closing seal on day one.