No longer the exclusive bastion of smooth jazz formulas — in Los Angeles, at least — the roving JVC Jazz Festival has ironically become a more listenable event, even if it doesn’t push any envelopes. All of the acts save razor-blade-voiced Ellis Hooks, who did a brief, hurried solo set, are veterans who made their biggest impact back in the 1970s and ’80s. Some, though, still have a surprise or new twist in them — and the most surprising and stimulating one Sunday night was (drum roll, please) David Sanborn.
Sanborn was backed by perhaps the best live band he’s ever fielded. Ricky Peterson rocked the B3 organ and produced understated yet very funky work on several synthesizers; master percussionist Don Alias and drummer Gene Lake stoked the cooking rhythm section. Sanborn’s alto sax remained a bit limited in tone color, but he could sting and swing with this band — and he pulled off a coup at the end by bringing out Bonnie Raitt for some slippery bottleneck electric guitar licks on “Soul Serenade.”
Though billed as a reunion of the Crusaders, only two alums of the original band — pianist Joe Sample and tenor saxman Wilton Felder — were on hand, enough to provide some, but not all, of the churning jazz-funk signatures of yore. These were somewhat more sedate, meticulous Crusaders, capably working the truckin’ groove of “Put It Where You Want It,” with Ray Parker Jr. accurately tracing the original guitar line and Sample getting funky on a vintage Wurlitzer electric piano.
For old times’ sake, Randy Crawford sang “Street Life” — her voice sounded thinner than what memory recalls — and Parker couldn’t help but tack on his huge hit “Ghostbusters” at the close.
Meanwhile, Larry Carlton (it would have been fun to have heard him play with the Crusaders again) expanded upon an electric blues kick that he revealed here with Fourplay last summer, peeling off hard-edged guitar licks directly descended from B.B. King. He made brief detours into old hits like “Minute by Minute” and even some organ-backed bop on “Tenor Madness,” but it was the blues that made the white handkerchiefs sprout in the crowd. Just like last year.
Stanley Clarke, one of the two electric bass monsters of the 1970s, had little new to say Sunday as his disjointed set eventually doubled back to the ever-reliable licks of “School Days.” Yet he remains an astounding virtuoso, concentrating on lines EQed close to the guitar range while a second bassist (Armand Sabal-Lecco) filled in the bottom.