Musically and meteorologically, Sunday’s edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival was a significant upgrade over the previous day. The temperature rose to a comfortable level – not hot in the day, not freezing at night. The jazz buffs were happy, for there was a long stretch of music that fit this bulging category and the performances were on a generally high level. The blues buffs were happy, for they got two outstanding sets from some well-traveled masters and an astonishing prodigy. Naturally 7, a big crowd-pleaser here in 2010, managed to top their earlier triumph. Even the traditional smooth-jazz closer was happening.
But first, Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela – absent from U.S. stages from 1999 to 2009 – made a fascinating Playboy Festival debut. His singing in the low register sometimes resembled that of Bob Dylan circa 1966; his material was rooted in American folk-rock at first and radiated out from there into grooves that evoked Sade, the Rolling Stones and finally Afro-Cuban rhythms. There is social protest in Varela’s music, which the Cuban government evidently tolerates, but non-Spanish speakers were left in the dark until surprise guest Jackson Browne helpfully recited an English translation of a lament for the city of Havana.
From this point, the jazz streak took over the afternoon. Pianist Geri Allen’s set was given an extra jolt whenever the electrifying tap dancer Maurice Chestnut joined her quartet’s rhythm section. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, fresh from his one-off appearance with the Roots on Saturday, brought his volatile, roiling free-bop quintet to fill in most ably for the absent Lee Konitz – who had to cancel at the last minute due to illness.
Two electric guitarists – the irrepressibly funky John Scofield and the rock-oriented Robben Ford – combined forces for a smokin’ blues set, every note placed firmly in the pocket. Pianist Bill Cunliffe took on the role of a traditional big band leader with the solid Resonance Big Band, leaving most of the keyboard work to an amazing Romanian pianist, Marian Petrescu, who poured forth an endless fountain of dazzling technique. He would need every ounce of it, for the agenda was the repertoire of the intimidating piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson, and Petrescu played as if he had swallowed the entire Peterson discography whole.
Naturally 7 created a vocal alternative universe – a wall of voices, keyboards, wah-wah bass, hard-rock guitar, a jaw-dropping simulation of a drum kit – and to that, they added old-fashioned showbiz choreography and pizzazz. Sure, it’s an elaborate stunt, but these gifted impressionists could make some satisfying music out of Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” and a string of Herbie Hancock milestones. Result: they walked off with the biggest ovation up to that point.
Perhaps the only letdown of the day was the act bearing the unwieldy title, “Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute To James Brown.” There were some authentic grizzled veterans of the JBs, trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist leader Pee Wee Ellis, on hand for old times’ sake, but the covers of the Godfather’s hits sounded routine and pat, outshone by Afro-pop numbers that were oddly sprinkled into the set.
Buddy Guy, as always, tore up the joint; his command over the crowd was so absolute, every word, every silence, every stinging guitar riff timed to perfection, that one laughed out loud in delight. And if anyone was wondering who could follow Buddy Guy, the savvy bluesman effectively appointed his own successor, an incredibly self-possessed 12-year-old named Quinn Sullivan who played a mean blues guitar and held his own with his beaming idol.
In a wry nod to the JBs, Harmony 3 – a.k.a. saxophonists Walter Beasley and Ronnie Laws and tap guitarist Stanley Jordan – launched their closing set with the “Doing It To Death” riff before settling into a pleasing smooth-jazz vein. The key was the quality of the material – “Listen Here,” “How Insensitive,” Laws’s still-winning “Friends And Strangers” – far and away above the norm. Although they couldn’t keep the fans from streaming for the exits, Harmony 3 closed the Playboy Festival 2011 in a satisfying way.