Those who grouse about the lack of progressive jazz at the Playboy Jazz Festival got their long-sought reward at the end of a long day on Sunday night when Spectrum Road took the stage. Others fled en masse within the first five minutes, admittedly a not-unusual exodus for the last act on the festival’s closing day. But they missed the most stimulating performance by far of Day Two — and this from an all-star quartet that was merely doing a full-tilt revival of a branch of jazz that was invented over 40 years ago.
Spectrum Road is a testament to the spirit and moxie of the late Tony Williams, the extravagantly gifted drummer who split from Miles Davis in 1969 to form the flame-throwing jazz-rock trio/quartet, the Tony Williams Lifetime. Yet Spectrum Road was not only faithful to the shock tactics of the original outfit, they pushed the idiom even further with a majestically burning set that was looser and more exploratory than their recently-released debut album.
During Spectrum’s set, John Medeski slammed down on his B3 organ and coaxed spooky, gleefully-distorted sounds out of his Mellotron, guitarist Vernon Reid put up a wall of noise, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana gained tremendously in flexibility, and original Lifetime bassist/singer Jack Bruce ably summoned memories of both the Lifetime (“There Comes A Time”) and his previous band, Cream. This was the most radical music heard at this Playboy fest, ahead of its time even in 2012.
Acting as sort of an acoustic jazz balance on the other end of the program, all-star septet the Cookers held court in the afternoon. Having been together for awhile now, these canny veterans have moved on from covering the past to their own uncompromising originals — high-minded, dense, absorbing post-bop jazz that took a bit of time to get off the ground. Yet their set wasn’t too abstract for one determined couple in the boxes who found a graceful way to dance to the music.
The third all-star act of the night, the all-female Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project, featured Ingrid Jensen and Tia Fuller returning in fine form on the front line from Saturday’s show. In the execution, though, the Mosaic set was not well paced, with the band serving mainly as backup for revolving star turns from singers Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato and political activist Angela Davis.
As diverse as the Playboy fest aims to be, one still had to wonder what blue-eyed soul singer Robin Thicke was doing on the bill. His act — with its own lighting scheme, its blatant episodes of falsetto would-be-sex-symbol provocation and slender yet pleasant songs of love and determination — seemed locked in its own exclusive sphere, not at all a part of the flow of this festival.
Deviating somewhat from the premise of spotlighting his 1974 electric album “Sun Goddess,” Ramsey Lewis nevertheless served up an exceptionally well-rounded look-back at his career, utilizing both the acoustic grand and Rhodes electric pianos to their fullest, seemingly happiest when harnessing the fluid groove of “Wade In The Water” and a batch of other gospel-based tunes. Another reliable festival favorite, Keb’ Mo’, turned in another solid set of rootsy, folky blues and funk grooves, his guitar and electric dobro always to-the-point and on target.
KG Omulo, from Kenya by way of Orlando, FL, came up with an easy-grooving set of Afro-pop mixed with a reggae lilt and wah-wah guitar in mid-afternoon — in any case, it was more agreeable than the Chilean band Chico Trujillo’s relentless bludgeon later on. New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band, of course, was made-to-order for the dinner hour at Playboy, and although they should have saved the inevitable “The Saints” for the end of their set instead of the middle, they did their job well, playing with gusto and getting the crowd to wave white napkins.