Near the beginning of every Playboy Jazz Festival program book is a graceful little essay titled “Coda,” where casualties in jazz since the last festival are eulogized. This summer, the list seemed especially poignant and ominous, for two irreplaceable performers originally scheduled to be here — Jimmy Smith and Percy Heath — had died since the bookings were made. Indeed, there were passages where Saturday’s concert felt more like a wake than a festival. Yet there was hope amidst the gloom as a cool breeze swept away the overcast skies and tempered the sun’s rays, and the compulsively polystylistic lineup offered something for almost everyone.
If Smith had a direct heir, Joey DeFrancesco is the man, for they recently collaborated on an album “Legacy” (Concord) that turned out to be Smith’s last. For old times’ sake, Smith’s sparring partner Kenny Burrell was there, sounding eloquent and elegiac on guitar, with veteran drummer Billy Hart stoking the flames. Yet a melancholy pall eventually settled over their set, showing up in DeFrancesco’s speaking voice and some of the music.
One venerable pioneer, the bassist Cachao, now credited by many as the inventor of the mambo, guided a Latin jazz ensemble through a collection of mambos and guajiras where the minimalist grooves evolved and gradually came together. Cachao also pulled off the biggest surprise of the day, bringing on the unbilled Paquito D’Rivera, who soared brilliantly on clarinet. But this set, too, became a memorial when some sentimental prose was read in remembrance of Cachao’s wife, who died a bit over a month ago.
A tribute set by definition was a revival of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra by a big band populated with many regulars from the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, right down to the rhythm section. Highlights of the set were some playful on-the-button trumpet solos by Jones/Lewis alum Jon Faddis and Chuck Findley — and Dee Dee Bridgewater turned the set into an Ella Fitzgerald tribute, pulverizing “Corcovado” but resurrecting “Alabama Song” with a brassy vocal to a shuffle beat.
The best set of the day was turned in by Joshua Redman, who like so many Young Lions has moved away from predictable neo-bop into unpredictable territory heavily laced with funk and electronics. Redman’s Elastic Band, with a new album on Nonsesuch, dared to reach back into the jazz-rock ’70s for something to push forward, personified by the liquid analog-age riffs of Sam Yahel’s synthesizers. Redman intelligently mixed bop erudition with greasy funk on tenor sax; he even experimented gleefully with electric sax effects.
Keb’ Mo’ caught the polyglot soul of this festival all by himself — with lowdown blues, danceable R&B, jazz and even a touch of bluegrass.
Pianist Ramsey Lewis’ influence is about to mushroom, since his PBS series, “Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis” debuts Thursday. While he continued to roam freely through his classical, soul and gospel streams, the emphasis was on gospel, culminating in a strangely inconsistent medley of spirituals that either grooved or remained stuck in neutral (with organ blasts that could have fit in at church or a silent horror movie).
The doldrums landed with a thud at the end of the evening, with two smooth-jazz bands pouring out cliches by the gross. First came the piledriving Fuzak formulas of Boney James. Then, without missing a beat, Everette Harp took over the sax chores in guitarist Norman Brown’s Summer Storm cavalcade, with Peabo Bryson and Brenda Russell laying on the power ballads.