At the Playboy Jazz Festival, much stays the same year after year. The musical formula at this annual sun-drenched music party is set in concrete — surveying the jazz spectrum and some ringers from other fields without venturing too far toward any extreme. Hugh Hefner arrives only on Saturday at about 5 p.m. with female entourage and departs around 7. The lavish program book has the same design. And this year, the event returned to its traditional Fathers’ Day weekend slot and traditional emcee Bill Cosby. Stability reigned — and that’s comforting, though it makes the festival’s chances of influencing the direction of jazz even more remote.
Luckily, on Saturday, the music was consistently good, straight across the board. Not so the blasting, muddled sonics, which again was a depressing comedown from the increasingly clean, balanced sound offered during the regular Hollywood Bowl jazz series.
When someone finally writes a book about these festivals, he probably will point to the Playboy debut of young British songster Jamie Cullum as the most notable portion of Saturday’s program. Some call him a Harry Connick Jr. for the hip-hop crowd, but he’s a different breed of cat: part nostalgia purveyor, part rebel deconstructionist, very British in his bright-eyed, eager-to-please charm.
Also, one must catch Cullum live; the recordings don’t convey the unpredictable manic energy of his stage act. He plays the grand piano with a nervous yet coherently stabbing technique (more inventive than Connick’s), then he’ll sprint across the stage to lead a clap-along. He pounds the piano case percussively with his hands, jumps up and down, even jumps on the piano. His band puts out acid-jazzy or retro-swinging beats. He can sing “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” relatively straight or take “I Get a Kick Out of You” partially apart with two-chord vamps and abrupt pauses. Most of all, Cullum engaged the crowd — and his clever choice of a solo encore, Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” amounted to a plea for a return engagement. He’ll get one.
The other big crowd-rouser of the day was the revival of the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project, part of their first joint tour since 1990. The distance between them in the intervening years seems to have kept their music fresh — a solid jazz-funk chassis powered by Clarke’s ground-breaking, thunder-fingered technique on his famous brown electric bass and Duke’s virtuosity and feeling for funky soul on electric keyboards. They even performed an acoustic duet on “Autumn Leaves,” which wouldn’t have come up in their heyday. Though their big top 20 ballad hit “Sweet Baby” has dated somewhat, Clarke’s indestructible riff “School Days” and Duke’s bedrock-funky “Reach For It” sure haven’t. Likewise, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra managed to keep an old format, the traditional big band, very much alive, thanks to some fascinating, occasionally quirky arrangements by co-leader/front man John Clayton and a rock-hard ensemble of pros. This band always knows how to swing; Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” had an especially terrific rhythmic lift. Stefon Harris was the featured soloist, as the set was a tribute to Milt Jackson, but Harris wasn’t in a reverential mood; his swinging, dazzling solos were the equal of those of any vibemaster of the past. The most venerated soloist of them all, Snooky Young, 87, got a plunger-mute showcase in “Lil’ Darlin’,” but we could barely hear it because his mic apparently was off.
The designated outsider, so to speak, was another African master, Senegal’s Baaba Maal, who, after opening with some delicate, kora-laced roots music, began to roam farther and wider as per his recent projects. The grooves and chords soon turned in the direction of southern Africa, with liberal doses of American funk and colorful, athletic dancers. Unfortunately, the complex, hefty grooves, intricate instrumental interplay and Maal’s staccato vocals were jumbled and distorted by poor sound.
Branford Marsalis’ set was all about abstract musical combustion, with his seasoned quartet mixing up some boiling post-bop — powered as always by the brilliant drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Branford remains a commanding presence on soprano and tenor, whether in Coltrane-like flurries or majestic Gene Ammons-like soul in “Bemsha Swing.”
Earlier, on a more conservative jazz note, Benny Golson’s quartet weighed in on the tenorman’s most famous standards, “I Remember Clifford” and “Killer Joe,” and the all-star Golden Striker Trio turned in an elegantly subdued set — too subdued for the partygoers out there.