While last year’s opening session of the Playboy Jazz Festival looked like a bellwether for the future — celebrating the surge of African and Latin influences in jazz — this year’s opener pointedly switched course. Indeed, Saturday was a reaffirmation of the usual Playboy agenda of rampant, defiant diversity — which is actually no agenda at all. Furthermore, it took a nonjazz act, Keb’ Mo’, to kick into gear what up to that point had been a fairly uneventful afternoon — and the most stimulating, most radical act of the lot, Medeski, Martin and Wood, had the good fortune to close the evening.
In the early going, the festival’s often uncanny sense of timing seemed to be off, the wrong acts on at the wrong times, doing little to catch the attention of the partying, dining, box-hopping, sunbathing 17,000-plus on hand. Singer Banu Gibson’s lighthearted, entertaining succession of Dixieland, swing re-creations and boogie woogies — complete with jitterbug dancers and a nostalgic appearance by veteran singer-dancer Fayard Nicholas — would have been more effective late in the afternoon when they could attract the hordes of handkerchief-wavers.
Likewise, the sole Latin act of the day, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars led by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (founder of Sierra Maestra and one of the sparkplugs behind the Buena Vista Social Club) should have been skedded late at night to catch the rising energy level following dinnertime. In any case, their conventional Afro-Cuban grooves never caught fire at mid-afternoon, not helped by weak individual solos and a congested sound mix.
Nancy Wilson, normally a headliner, went on at an oddly early time — and she responded with a set that gradually slowed to a crawl, her drawn-out vocal mannerisms more wayward than ever, trying in vain to create intimacy in a huge concrete amphitheater.
Yes, Max Roach is a living legend, one of the last active bebop pioneers and thankfully never content to remain stuck in that bag — as his driving, complex backing for the fulminations of tenor saxophonist Odean Pope and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater indicated. But the more Roach’s band played, the more unfocused and listless it became, and the great drummer seemed completely drained by set’s close.
Yet with the crack of Keb’ Mo’s funky electric dobro on “It Hurts Me Too,” the festival was jolted to life — and from that point to the end, things were popping. Keb’ Mo’ is an inspired eclectic and a canny showman, ranging easily from hard-core blues to the soul-pop of the Winstons’ “Color Him Father,” shifting smoothly from super-cool B.B. King-like electric work to unaccompanied country-folk fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar.
Somehow, Charles Lloyd segued easily from Mo’s sassy, swaggering final numbers into a free-flowing, eccentrically refreshing bag of his own — heavily tilted on this occasion toward Billy Strayhorn (“A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “Lotus Blossom”), with John Abercrombie’s off-kilter guitar always offering spare, intelligent commentary. An unattended second drum kit could be seen on the right — that was a nod to the late Billy Higgins, who originally was set to make the gig — and Dwight Trible offered a fiercely keening vocalese in a somber parting tribute. David Benoit also indulged in memorials, though of a more joyous kind, sprinkling several infectious tunes by the late Vince Guaraldi (“Freda,” “Linus and Lucy,” “The Red Baron,” “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”) into a set that balanced pushing, vigorous bop piano excursions with his usual smooth jazz signatures.
The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band set could have been considered one big memorial — first to Louis Armstrong (“What a Wonderful World”) and then to John Coltrane with an expansive, cyclical Slide Hampton-arranged reinterpretation of “A Love Supreme.” But while some of the big band textures did seem rather tame, guest tenor sax soloist Michael Brecker broke loose with some of the most fiery, high-energy work that we’ve heard from him, leading to a battle royal and simultaneous freakout from the entire sax section. Leader Jon Faddis confined his solo trumpet and growling vocals to the Satchmo tune, letting the underrated Lew Soloff take the high-flying, crisp solo trumpet honors in the concluding “Giant Steps.”
Finally, Medeski, Martin and Wood came out smokin’ and didn’t let up for a nanosecond, laying down their complex, run-on, deep-pile, acid-jazz grooves for about an hour. Strikingly, like the so-called Young Lions, these three are neo-classicists — from their choice of old instruments to their roots in the past (James Brown, electric Miles Davis, etc.). The difference is that these guys push their sources deliriously beyond the old limits, as John Medeski coaxed weird, abstract electronic music out of his battered Hammond B3, Clavinet and Wurlitzer piano and somehow turned the awkward old Mellotron into a funk instrument.
Anyone who got his jazz education solely from Ken Burns’ narrowly defined series on PBS would have been ill-prepared for this great act or, for that matter, most of the Playboy Jazz Festival.