Saturday marked the start of the Playboy Jazz Festival’s silver anniversary at its Hollywood Bowl stomping grounds — which also happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Playboy’s trailblazing magazine. The symbolic power of the numbers was strong enough to get Playboy founder Hugh Hefner to make a rare public appearance onstage — and much the way he did at the first festival here in 1979, he decreed that this party should go on for another 25 years.
All well and good — and may it entertain packed houses of jazz fans and partygoers for even longer than that. Yet it was surprising, and perhaps a bit disappointing, that Playboy didn’t go to more trouble to make this round-numbered festival a real historical event — like bringing together new combinations of what remains of jazz’s giants and comers, or showcasing a startling new twist in jazz’s evolution. But then, perhaps business-as-usual was precisely the point, emphasizing continuity by giving the sun worshippers and diners another smorgasbord of styles in and out of jazz that will soon blur in memory with the other 24 festivals.
In any case, there was one genuinely innovative addition to this year’s event — the introduction of two giant video screens flanking the Bowl’s shell. The mostly well-directed camerawork really brings the audience of near and far into the show, adding a sense of intimacy, involvement and additional color to the eye. May that continue.
Otherwise, oddly enough, the bewilderingly diverse lineup Saturday sorted itself out rather neatly, going something like this:
- Most Absorbing Music: The brilliantly interwoven, complex sounds of the Dave Holland Quintet, with terrific, punching bass solos by the British-born leader, scorching tenor from Chris Potter, hard swinging trombone from Robin Eubanks, ringing vibes from Steve Nelson and some astounding staggered dialogues between Holland and drummer Billy Kilson.
- Best “Show”: Not only is Brazil’s Daniela Mercury a beautiful woman, a hard-working dancer, a percolating vocalist and leader of a band that caroms between samba, reggae and rock, she was the only performer to really take command of the video screens and extend their possibilities. Throughout her act, along with captivating closeups, the screens flashed abstract patterns, moving vignettes from her native Bahia, her old videos. It was a smashing sensual immersion — and it was puzzling that it made almost no impact upon the crowd.
- Biggest Audience Response: The Blind Boys of Alabama, who started with a big fatback beat and built to a rocking gospel shouter, revving up the crowd as lead singer Jimmy Carter (obviously, no relation to the former prez) came down into the aisles shouting and testifying, milking the moment for an eternity or two. They also served up the most bizarre juxtaposition of the day, singing the words of “Amazing Grace” to the doleful tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.” In second place on the applause meter: Boney James’ predictable smooth jazz vamps and high hard ones on soprano sax.
- Nearest Thing to a Special Event: The L.A. Home Grown All-Star Band, a collection of familiar L.A. studio vets (drummer Ndugu Chancler, saxophonists Tom Scott and Ernie Watts, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., etc.) whose set of sterling L.A. jazz/funk in a style that was current 25 years ago veered into salsa, then straight-ahead Miles Davis (“Seven Steps to Heaven”).
- Most Hyped Letdown: Boz Scaggs’ attempt to turn into a smooth purveyor of standards, a la his new album “But Beautiful” (Virgin). He’s all right, but still on the surface, not even beginning to convey the hurt of a song like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” — and the audience response shrunk as the set dawdled on. Oddly, Boz’s best effort by far was a transformation of his hit “Lowdown” into sophisticated jazz; it’s better than the original now. Second-most hyped, but not that much of a letdown, was Verve debutante Lizz Wright, whose open, bright, in-tune voice shines and sustains, but the pacing of her set begins to drag after awhile and the influence of Dianne Reeves still dominates.
- Off-The-Wall Ringers of the Day: No question, it was the 12 Romanian gypsies of Fanfare Ciocarlia, whose frantic Eastern European wedding dances occasionally revealed an subconscious Brazilian or even calypso strain in the rhythm.
Elsewhere, Poncho Sanchez’s octet served up its reliable salsa stew, accented on just two numbers (“Tin Tin Deo” and “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid”) by the agelessly burning sax of James Moody. And Hiroshima again intrigued with its fascinating combination of Western and Japanese instruments while failing to stir up much fire beyond the Wave.