The Playboy Jazz Festival is no longer a guaranteed sellout – at least in Sunday’s edition, where stretches of bare benches could be seen in the upper levels of the vast Hollywood Bowl. But this festival proved it can still generate a streak wherein several stylistically diverse bands roar out of the box in top form. It had been a number of years since a streak occurred at the Playboy, but Sunday a mixture of old favorites, some newcomers and an all-star saxfest made it happen.
The streak started at about the midpoint of the fest — around dinnertime — and continued all the way to the end at 10:15 p.m. It began with Dr. John delivering a bumping series of second-line rhythms, completely personalizing material like “Accentuate the Positive,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and even “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Puerto Rican salsa master Gilberto Santa Rosa (a Playboy debut) took it from there, catching the fed audience ready to boogie in the aisles. There was nothing fancy or new about his New York brand of salsa, just a solid, disciplined groove that grew more irresistible by the minute.
Michael Brecker had to cancel his appearance with the Saxophone Summit only days before the festival, nearly leaving teammates Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano in the lurch. Luckily, Joshua Redman, fresh from his electric band triumph here Saturday, was available to step in — and in fact, he provided a valuable contrasting voice to the two veterans.
Redman was the fluid, intelligent emissary from the mainstream, while Lovano ventured further outside and the frenzied Liebman further still. The tension their clash generated was electric, a total immersion into 1960s Coltrane with “India” and “Impressions.”
George Benson is an old hand at creating frenzy at the peak of a Playboy streak — and he did it again, sticking almost entirely to his greatest hits. Yet despite his concentration on pop vocals, there was plenty of Benson’s peerless guitar to go around, more firmly planted in the pocket than ever, and even some brilliant new licks.
Gordon Goodwin’s superb, fresh-sounding Big Phat Band provided the capper to the streak and the night, fueled by a madly swinging rhythm section.
Unfortunately, the sound engineers seemed to be catering to the perceived sonic tastes of a rock crowd, cranked way, way up in volume. Unbalanced, it was difficult to hear Chico Hamilton’s drums and rendered Roy Ayers’ set useless. This is bad news for those who value progress in audio quality, or their hearing.