Though the 2006 Playboy Jazz Festival was touted as a gathering of soul brothers for the storm-battered city of New Orleans, only on Sunday did the connection really surface. Elder Edward Babb and the trombone-laden McCollough Sons of Thunder evoked the spirit of N’awlins first (though they hail from Harlem); then, the still-spry Preservation Hall Jazz Band roused the handkerchief-waving crowd right around dinnertime. But ultimately it was the joker in this jazz deck, Elvis Costello — in cahoots with the magnificent producer-songwriter-singer-pianist-catalyst Allen Toussaint — who seized the moment with the most irresistible musical and emotional pull.
Costello/Toussaint project “The River in Reverse” shouldn’t have surprised the mass media as much as it did, for rock stars since the Band have collaborated happily with Toussaint for decades — and Costello seems bent upon collaborating with just about everybody. This live teaming brought out the best in both.
While the sound of their collaboration stayed pretty much on Toussaint’s terms, Costello sounded confident, cocky and totally at home in the absolutely distinctive Toussaint horn arrangements and signature Southern funk — as did his band, the Imposters. The lead went back and forth, with Toussaint giving an especially funky push to the vocals on “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and Costello resurrecting a tune that Toussaint did for Lee Dorsey long ago, “Freedom for the Stallion,” that fit the tone of their post-Katrina agenda.
Even an old Costello calling card, “Watching the Detectives,” was perfectly translated by Toussaint — and Costello gave Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” a jolt of his urgency. That one got this jazz party jiggling in the aisles.
Indeed, Costello and Toussaint were riding a wave of energy at the fest that had been building for hours. McCoy Tyner managed to follow the Preservation Hall party with a splendid idea — teaming his hard-driving augmented trio with the dynamic dancing of nine members of Lula Washington’s Dance Theater. The dancers galvanized Tyner, and he in turn urged them on with ever-cresting rhythmic movement Latinized by conguero Kevin Ricard. Alas, the bloated sound was awful — the piano was overamped, and one couldn’t hear the bass. Do Playboy’s engineers ever listen to the sonic garbage coming out of their sound board?
Oddly enough, the sound was a little better for the more-complex stylistic entanglements of Ozomatli, who as usual came sashaying from the benches down to the stage as their political statement — music coming from the people. The group remains a big, deliberately messy salad bowl of ingredients: an Indian raga-based tune with a reggae-styled rap, to cite one unlikely example. But nowadays, they swing better than ever in any of their styles; there is more control amid the frantic cross-rhythms and other blatancies.
The veteran Latin jazz master Eddie Palmieri followed that display with one of the great sets in Playboy Festival history, going beyond himself with a stream of compulsively danceable medium and fast boogaloos. Besides Palmieri’s insistent riffing on a digital baby grand piano, the not-so-secret catalyst of this set was the rock-solid congas of Giovanni Hidalgo.
He hit a deep-pile groove in each tune and never let up for a second, lighting fires under guest violinist Regina Carter and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, as well as the reformed neo-bopper, altoist Donald Harrison. The high point of the set — and for me, the entire day — was the tremendous boogaloo jam on Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here.”
The Groovin’ for Grover tribute band had the unenviable task of trying to follow Costello/Toussaint — in the late Grover Washington Jr.’s slot at the end (or thereabouts) of the evening. Grover could have done it; above all, he was an absolute master in reading the temperature of any crowd. But while saxophonists Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright had the crowd schmoozing and jive squealing rites of passage down pat, they did not share Grover’s control of pacing — and the set palled quickly. The most impressive performances by far came from keyboardist Jeff Lorber, who could be genuinely swinging and funky.
At the top of the day, the young New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott played a short set that offered hints of the virtues of his impressive, electrified Concord debut album “Rewind That.” However, he was in much more impressive form on Saturday, stimulated to swing by the savvy veterans in emcee Bill Cosby’s latest Cos of Good Music band.