Two great shouts went up from the Hollywood Bowl crowd Sunday as Pete Fountain went into the home stretch of his set at the Playboy Jazz Festival. Alas, the shouts were not for him. At this point, the only jazz that mattered for many were the Jazz from Utah, and the only virtuoso was a non-horn player named Michael Jordan.
The performers had their work cut out for them, trying to rouse a distracted and laid-back Sunday afternoon crowd — and as if by design, only the combination of the end of the basketball game and the arrival of Los Van Van could stir up the joint. It was especially tough on this Sunday, where the parade of performers led to a mostly even-tempered hodgepodge of music with few surprises from one act to the next. Diversity is indeed the raison d’etre and life force of this festival, but the individual components weren’t as potent as they could have been.
Following a propulsive opening set by Cognac Hennessy Jazz Search Winner pianist Silvano Monasterios, percussionist Sheila E. playfully provided much of the energetic push behind her E-Train combo, which alternated between straight-forward Latin jazz and the Wave-style ballads.
For sheer musicality, Howard Johnson’s Gravity was, oddly enough, the most interesting act of the day. Fueled by a fine rhythm section, the ensemble of as many as seven tubas put out subtle, sophisticated, mellow sonorities. Johnson also has an impish sense of humor, choosing to play Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” from his new Verve CD “Right Now,” on the most offbeat alternative he could think of — a penny-whistle. His daughter Nedra displayed a booming blues voice.
In a set that sounded like a hopscotch tour of jazz over the last 35 years, Kenny Garrett came out smokin’ like John Coltrane on alto, switched to soprano for a jazz-lite ballad, latched onto a quasi-hip-hop-funk beat, and finally, as he began to run a bit short of ideas, wound up plaintively quoting his old employer Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre.” Likewise, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s set was largely an act of homage — not to Frank Sinatra, the designated dedicatee of the festival who received almost zero attention all day from the performers — but to Ella Fitzgerald, the subject of her latest CD, “Dear Ella.” She did so with fine, swinging phrasing, a dusky, sultry vibrato, and a combo most effectively driven when pianist Thierry Eliez switched to the Hammond organ.
The Louie Bellson Big Band Explosion proved once again that a great drummer can elevate a merely decent big band into something beyond the sum of its charts. Looking utterly relaxed, the 73-year-old Bellson made every wrist-driven drumstroke count, still producing the most deftly constructed solos in the business, supporting each of his expert soloists with swinging firmness and grace.
Now the grand old man of New Orleans Dixieland, Pete Fountain should have been made to order for this festival — and indeed, he still punches out his clarinet solos on the old standards with authority, a big warm-hearted tone and a freshness that belies the number of times he must have played them. Yet his band was too settled and laid-back — particularly the drummer — to take full advantage of the moment.
Coming off their ballyhooed debut here last year, Los Van Van created exactly the same effect upon their return, getting the crowd out of their seats jiggling to the Cuban charanga groove. But their repertoire remains painfully limited, the electronic instruments make little impact upon the textures except in sheer volume and the grooves coming through the muddled sound system weren’t all that compelling anyway.
The popular electric jazz quartet Fourplay, in only its second gig with new guitarist Larry Carlton (replacing Lee Ritenour), is fundamentally the same, smooth-cruising, unflappable act it has always been. But the tasty Carlton does give the band an appealingly funkier edge now and Harvey Mason remains the archetypical funky drummer. As on their recent CD with Carlton, “4” (Warner Bros.), they were joined by singer El DeBarge, who made predictably lascivious work of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
If the idea of attracting a different audience was behind the addition of Little Feat to the program, it bombed, for people were leaving in droves before the set was 15 minutes old. And frankly, the veteran rock band was out of gas anyway, the material very thin and repetitious, the vocals and guitar duels numbingly dreary.