sparkling, rollickingly off-center piano of Roger Kellaway. Doc Cheatham proved that one can play lovely Armstrong-styled trumpet at age 90.
Reading the mood of the crowd perfectly and driven by some scorching blues harp, Ernestine Anderson delivered a gritty, blues-drenched set that got the white handkerchiefs waving for the first time.
Day One of this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival was one for the memory books. Rarely has there been such a consistently giddy streak of musical highs as the one that ran down the middle of Saturday’s edition. And believe it or not, there were even moments when the Playboy shed its determined conservatism and flirted with controversy. In the ’80s, the Playboy would throw the rebels a bone now and then with a World Saxophone Quartet or a Lester Bowie, but this amiably populist festival hasn’t had anything remotely near the edge since. On Saturday, though, producer George Wein and company finally recognized the more-or-less current dialogue between be-bop and hiphop. Still, leading that dialogue was not some raging young rapper from the streets but an old fusion explorer, Dr. Donald Byrd. The good news is that these New Blackbyrds are a fine, briskly-sailing jazz group on their own, amply powered by the protean drummer Marvin (Smitty) Smith. Rising above some recent so-so straight-ahead albums, Byrd himself sounded wonderful, peeling off one firm, lyrical, trademark lick after another on trumpet and flugelhorn. Yet the hiphop, though novel for this festival, wasn’t much to write home about. On the whole, though, Byrd and friends kicked off a hot streak of veterans that ran all afternoon, following as they did the vigorous if conventional charts of the all-female big band Diva and saxophonist Boney James’ cut-above-average R&B jazz-lite. Benny Carter, still a miraculously eloquent storyteller on alto sax at 87, led a crack quartet fueled by theMore concert reviews, page 26 Horace Silver followed with a stomping set of distinctively-crafted charts for his Silver/Brass Ensemble, with tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard and trombonist George Bohannon locked tightly in the groove set by Silver’s supremely funky piano comping.
Flutist Herbie Mann ran away with the best set of the day — and few should have been surprised. This was the ideal setting for Mann, a smoking, humming soul-jazz outfit anchored by guitarist Cornell Dupree’s jewel-like touch and David (Fathead) Newman’s fatback tenor sax. In “Memphis Underground,” the set’s peak, Mann and (unexpectedly) Newman’s flashing flutes soared over an irresistible long-running groove that you hoped would never run out.
Al Jarreau was still up to his usual rubber-voiced tricks, but his set often seemed a bit too slick and the sound too cluttered to get much of a groove going. But when he tried an unusual (for him) shuffle-boogie blues at the end, almost all was forgiven.
Los Lobos, the ringers of the night, provided the fest’s other flashpoint of dispute, roaming freely from mesmerizing regional Mexican folk music to blistering hard rock. It was stimulating, but out of place.