Jazz writers like to grouse about how nothing changes at the Playboy Jazz Festival from year to year but the names on the program. Yet one can look at this stasis in a different way, as comfort food in bad times, as a ritual that one can depend upon and hopefully will never go away. It certainly helped that there was a fairly even level of quality over most of the first day of the fest, with the knockout jazz-funk of the Marcus Miller Band and state-of-the-art acoustic jazz set of Chick Corea’s Freedom Band as the undisputed high points.
One cannot deny that most of jazz’s major players are gone, but there are still some left — and that certainly contributed to the comfort level on Day One. One of them, Corea, celebrated his 69th birthday Saturday — a birthday cake loaded with trick candles was presented to him by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — and he responded with a splendid set where his piano work was every bit as creative as ever, with not a single rote passage to be heard.
Driving his quartet was another surviving jazz giant, Roy Haynes, whose playing at 85 has no right to be as nimble, strong and swinging as it is, but hearing is believing. Christian McBride was the first acoustic bass player all day to get a good, solid tone through the wretched sound system, and Kenny Garrett, at 49, has matured into one of jazz’s alto sax masters. Together, the quickness of their ears and mutual telepathy never flagged.
The protean Marcus Miller flashed several aspects of his talent — as a monster of an electric bass player, as a composer, even as a decent bass clarinetist — with his quintet laying down a powerful jazz-funk groove. The set was mainly given over to a recap of Miller’s association with Miles Davis in the 1980s, where Miller provided most of the tunes and all of the textures for three of MD’s albums. After weaving happily through “Backyard Ritual,” “Splatch,” “Tutu” and “Human Nature” — with muted trumpeter Christian Scott ably standing in for Miles — Miller suddenly realized the crowd would rather party than remember Davis. So he abruptly switched gears to a funkified rendition of “Come Together,” the third act of the day to include a Beatles tune in its set.
If Scott was the designated Miles Davis of the day, tenor saxman Ernie Watts did his ferocious best to channel his hero — and onetime Miles sparring partner — John Coltrane, during Kurt Elling’s set. Wearing cool shades and brown pinstripes, Elling turned in an intelligently programmed batch of songs from Tin Pan Alley to Stevie Wonder, with lots of agile bopscat.
There was no need to channel Les McCann, for the irrepressible 74-year-old funkmaster was there behind a Yamaha synthesizer during tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson’s set — less-exuberant than in earlier times, yet squeezing his unmistakable harmonic signatures out of the keyboard. The sound, alas, was horrible during Jackson’s set, and the engineers nearly ruined McCann’s big moment by not switching his mic on during the first part of “Compared to What.”
Jake Shimabukuro showed what could be done with a simple ukulele with the help of amplification and a huge technique — best illustrated when turning the uke into a miniature flamenco guitar. Likewise, Naturally 7 takes the old idea of a vocal orchestra to a new level — spread out onstage like an electronic hybrid big-band/hip-hop unit. The robust Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, though, still does its traditional big band thing, though not incapable of a surprise or two — like the chart of Motown’s “Where Did Our Love Go” with its round-robin of solos throughout the band.
Trombone Shorty and his second-line-funky-soul band from New Orleans worked hard to get a rise out of the notoriously inert afternoon crowd, and finally succeeded at set’s end. So did the Pete Escovedo Orchestra in the after-dinner slot — and with more than a dash of showmanship, jive and eventual near-anarchy when Sheila E “tried” to strike up “The Glamorous Life”; they had no trouble rousing the dancers in the aisles.
The Bait-and-Switch award goes, hands down, to the alleged Sax for Stax band, which after opening with Isaac Hayes’s “Theme From ‘The Men’?” didn’t play another Stax tune, reverting to the usual smooth-jazz agenda of cliche after sax cliche — made tolerable only by Jeff Lorber’s splendidly funky keyboard.