It’s dangerous to speculate which program of the two-day Playboy Jazz Festival will be the better one just by glancing at the lineup. Most of the time, you will be wrong. Someone might be having an off-day, one act doesn’t flow comfortably into the next, an overlooked veteran or a newcomer will suddenly get hot, the partying crowd might be distracted or drunk or obsessed with the Lakers game. Case in point: the Saturday concert outpointed Sunday’s in musical interest and energy level. Yet when the sun vanished behind the trees at the Hollywood Bowl, Sunday’s program was suddenly jolted to life by a man from Mali — and the wave he generated rolled through the rest of the night.
It was the great band of Salif Keita — the albino Malian superstar making his Playboy Festival debut — that launched the roll with one monster groove after another, accomplished with pithy, perfectly placed notes on Western electric guitars and thundering African percussion.
Keita, 60, mostly stood stock still, radiating dignity amid the turbocharged grooves, his voice maybe not as spectacularly keening as it once was, but now often almost conversational in character.
Material from his album “La Difference” (Emarcy), like “Ekolo d’Amour,” sounded tougher and more driving live — and Keita and company found it easier to get the dancing audience to sing along than did the domestic acts on the bill. It was a shining Playboy fest moment.
Fortunately, the Manhattan Transfer, which followed Keita, wasn’t intimidated, offering up a smoking jazz-oriented set of their own — with a terrific, seasoned backup band, too. Their vocalise arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Spain” picked up on Keita’s energy — and sprinkled throughout the set were more Corea covers from their adventurous current album, “The Chick Corea Songbook” (4Q). If Chick himself, who performed Saturday, had sat in, it might have been as explosive as that now-storied set at Playboy 1982 when the Transfer joined Weather Report.
George Benson knew what to do, too. He mixed up his set a bit — starting with vocals, then reaching for the instrumentals with a fine “Mambo Inn,” and bringing out a surprise guest, guitarist Earl Klugh, for a journey back to their album “Collaboration.” The presence of Klugh kicked in something for Benson — and from that point on, his guitar went deeper and deeper into the pocket. Any guitarist would trade his rare instrument collection for just one of the incredibly funky fills that Benson pulled off in “Give Me the Night.”
Tiempo Libre, the Cuban expatriate band from Miami, inherited the dancers from Benson and skillfully kept them gyrating until the evening’s end with satisfying Afro-Cuban party grooves sometimes derived from erudite sources (as per their training) like J. S. Bach.
Oddly enough, the most anticipated performance — that of last year’s hit, Esperanza Spalding — was a bit of a letdown. There’s no doubt about her striking stage presence, versatile feminine voice, expertise on standup and electric basses, and the unusual joy and passion she radiates. But with a good but not great band and a lack of powerful material, she failed to connect with the audience in any meaningful way, her desperate attempts to generate a singalong in vain.The Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel guitar, Robert Randolph — who was impressive in his previous Playboy appearance — was also disappointing; again, subpar material may have been to blame. The set by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Cedar Walton was somnolent, often inaudible, serving as mere dinner jazz for the crowd.
Irvin Mayfield brought his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra — which, if you looked from a distance and squinted, resembled an old photo of a New Orleans band circa 1910. But Mayfield had a more contemporary political agenda in mind, savaging BP with a wild extended piece, “Somebody Forgot to Turn the Faucet Off.” He barely missed setting off the day’s first wild crowd response, cutting off a bumpy swinging blues just as it was rolling.Regarding this year’s Cos’ of Good Music, even the wretchedly balanced sound could not quite obscure the smoothly swinging trumpet of Ingrid Jensen. But the engineers succeeded in making an almost unintelligible hash of Jazz Mafia’s performance of Adam Theis’ fascinating “Brass Bows And Beats: A Hip-Hop Symphony.” There’s a lot more to this constantly jump-cutting assembly of spare parts from every idiom imaginable than we were allowed to hear.