While Saturday’s edition of the 2000 Playboy Jazz Festival clearly pointed the way toward an African/Latin future for jazz, Sunday’s message was less focused, less emphatic, more diverse. This time, the jazz mainstream struck back with a generous quantity of the old veri-ties, hauling out a handful of its remaining big guns to compete with the Latin masters. Eventually — given the presentation of popular Latin singers Ruben Blades and Celia Cruz toward the end of the night — the general compass of the day again pointed toward Southern regions, helped by a sound system significantly improved from past years.
Perhaps it was a sign of a changing festival that the opening act, the Spotlight Awards Alumni Jazz Band, was the first group of the weekend that played unadorned, non-electric, small-group hard bop — after the festival was half over! Bonesoir, with its mellifluous five-trombone front line dominated by ever-reliable George Bohanon, extended the mainstream streak with a pretty good set that could have used more imagination in the voicings of those lovely instruments.
Underneath the now-fluid, now-disconnected soprano and tenor sax flurries of David Sanchez, the Latin American strain started seeping back into the rhythm, eventually culminating in some abrasive salsa vamping. Guitarist Norman Brown showed that while he is a marvelously agile, mellow technician (dig those octaves) and a studious disciple of the gospel according to George Benson (dig his scatting with his guitar), he couldn’t rise above the pedestrian band he fronts and the mediocre melodic material that limits his creativity.
In Bill Cosby’s ad-hoc Cos Of Good Music ensembles, you can always expect distinguished flashes of music from experts and quirks from the emcee that nearly undermine everything. The fifth edition showed signs of being a great one, with Eddie Henderson staking claim as an eloquent, underrated master of the trumpet and flugelhorn, saxophonists Billy Harper and Gary Bartz venturing toward the impassioned edge, and the always-fascinating Wah Wah Watson rippling spacey obbligatos on his guitar. There were marvelous moments — a weird, atmospheric pairing of Hender-son and Watson on John Coltrane’s “Naima” and a wonderfully evocative rendition of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Cosby was certainly responsible for the daring segues, but also for some egocentric bashing on a percussion kit, proving that he has more taste than sense at times.
Bela Fleck’s act is a study in paradox: futuristic instruments (especially the guitar-shaped electronic percussion kit of a sideman identified only as “Future Man”) coupled with bluegrass banjo-picking as old as the hills. It is also a very musical act — tight, dignified, swinging, inventive, unclassifi-able, and one of the best of the day, topped by a perfectly translated adapta-tion of Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down.”
One of the mainstream heavyweights checked in next, Elvin Jones, who lost little time in re-creating the hypnotic, relaxed, cymbal-laden rhythmic carpet that he used to lay down for Coltrane. Under guru Jones’ serene spell, all three of his horn players — Darren Barrett (trumpet), Antoine Roney (tenor sax) and the unbilled Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone) — seemed to bask in the hovering spirit of ‘Trane.
Another big name, Wynton Marsalis, had the unenviable task of trying to follow an often-driving set of salsa and pop/jazz from singer/politician/actor Blades and his large, energetic, very young ensem-ble, which got the conga lines snaking around the Bowl. Well, rather than pick up on Blades’ momentum, Marsalis chose to gamble. Seated in an ordinary trumpeter’s chair within the formally attired Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis had the ensemble perform his entire 55-minute big-band suite “Big Train” — an ambitious and robust Ellingtonian tone poem about a railroad trip from the West to the East. But this was the wrong piece at the wrong time. Its detailed program was not outlined to the partying diners in the seats, and despite some superbly played ensemble and solo passages, especially from Marsalis, there wasn’t a single memorable idea that wasn’t an Ellington paraphrase.
But Marsalis, who knows how to shake up this joint, realized that he had to give the crowd some release and he did, starting a good old-fashioned New Orleans Dixieland rave-up as an encore. Out came the handkerchiefs, and the released pent-up energy in the Bowl was electrifying. He should have done a whole set of this.
The stage-savvy Cruz had no problem following that. Even though at times she seemed to be singing in a different key than her band, she still knocks out the syllables with a crisp kick and she had Yari More’s knife-sharp orchestra cranking out high-octane salsa at all times. Nor was the consummate pro Lou Rawls fazed by all that went on before him — not with his agelessly resonant voice, strong hit material, genuine soul sensibil-ity, excellent combo (with the mighty David T. Walker’s brittle signature guitar), and an elegance that never seemed over-refined. Thus the 2000 festival ended with a classy sign-off.
Festival: Day Two