The Playboy Jazz Festival turned a big page in its history Saturday night, sporting a lineup that as a whole sounded and felt different from anything we’ve heard at this annual June block party before. You could see the influences of African and Latin music slowly creeping in over the past few years, but this year, they exploded into the forefront, with little-known acts like Richard Bona and the wild, weird L.A. band Ozomatli scoring surprise hits. The other dominant, and by no means unrelated, ingredient was dance — and that could be really significant.
Normally, writers tee off on the Playboy Fest for lagging behind the artistic curve — or Zeitgeist, if you will — but this time, they may have caught up and even pushed slightly ahead of that curve. In order for jazz to work its way out of its mid-20th century hard bop rut and become a life force again, it has to look south and southeast — to Latin America and Africa — for rhythmic stimulation and a way to win new audiences. That’s what was happening Saturday, and the spirit was catching, for even non-Latin acts all over the lineup were injecting passages of salsa or African rhythms into their sets.
Not only that, hot rhythms and the dance scenes they set off are a perfect fit for this sunbathed event, and if musicians can do creative things within this context — which some actually did — there’s the future of jazz right there.
Mingus Amungus, a San Francisco Bay area combo that uses Charles Mingus’ repertoire as a launching pad, set the tone right away with its collection of dancers, heavy presence of congas, and in the end, hectic rapping, though the set didn’t ignite as fiercely as it could have. But East Cameroon’s Richard Bona did ignite, his bass popping like Jaco Pastorius, his smooth. cool vocals riding above the cool, understated yet insistent Central African grooves, with soprano saxophonist Aaron Heick embroidering the texture in a Branford Marsalis manner. If there was a patron spirit to this bubbling music, it would have to be Joe Zawinul, who at last is looking more and more like a prophet of a world music alliance with jazz.
Guitarist John Scofield scored big with a great set, the most consistently creative one of the day, with darting, pithy, often bewilderingly complex solos over a deep-pile funk carpet, searching out all kinds of spaces to place each note, with lots of intriguing electronic effects, and Avi Bortnick’s powerhouse, wah-wah rhythm guitar. Then the 10-man band Ozomatli streamed through the aisles banging on percussion and blowing whistles like a Brazilian street band, hitting the stage with a delicious atonal cacophony. They are like several boom boxes blaring all at once, a mad energetic stew of scraps and snatches of every style they could think of, funny abrupt endings, and riotous jamming where the horn players face each other in a huddle and wail. They also may have set a record for generating the earliest conga line (at 5:10 p.m.) at any of these festivals.
Violinist Regina Carter, no newcomer at tearing up jazz festivals, is a looser, freer performer than she was only a year ago, swinging quite capably in samba-based and African-tinged grooves, with some straight-ahead jazz at the close.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy may be one of the most successful of all those zoot-suited retro swing bands — and they got the crowd on its feet waving hankies ‘n’ stuff — but their high-powered act strikes me as that of a serviceable, earthbound jump band, without really strong original material or creative moxie that can push this idiom out of its showbizzy obsession with the past. As for their covers of older tunes, give me an old Louis Jordan record any day.
Caught in the middle of a day of world music heat, the Count Basie Orchestra’s set seemed like a gentle breather from the past, not quite a collection of ghosts but a sedate exponent of the Old Testament of swing (at the set’s close, even emcee Bill Cosby half-jokingly said, “Spin these old people around”). Dianne Reeves, who found a hot groove and rode it to triumph at 1999’s Playboy fest, tried to capture the moment again — and nearly did. Using the same backup band, the same opening numbers, with her voice in similarly majestic form, she veered off into a salsa-accented tribute to the late Tito Puente, imported some freeform dancers from Crenshaw High School and launched her winning Afro-Brazilian-funk treatments of “Mista” and “Love For Sale.” For those who weren’t there in ’99, Reeves was just inspired enough to give them the basic idea of what went on.
Last year, Grover Washington Jr. executed a perfect segue out of Reeves’ set but he is no longer around, having died suddenly last December (another sign of this festival’s changing-of-the-guard ambiance), and Boney James’ attempt to fill the gap fell far short. He blended smoothly with co-billed trumpeter Rick Braun but what does it matter when the material is mediocre (save for “Grazing in the Grass” and a snatch of “St. Louis Blues”) and the band is plodding?
As for Los Van Van, for all of their complex layers of charanga-based rhythm and Cuban swagger, a little of their act still goes a long way. Nothing varies, nothing builds in this loud, unyielding, albeit danceable sonic assault that doesn’t give listeners spaces to breathe.