The lavish program booklet for the Playboy Jazz Festival always opens with an essay called Coda, a roll call of nearly all the greats and near-greats who passed away in the past year. This year’s especially long list ominously contained the names of several record company visionaries who fought hard for jazz before the suits took full control of the big labels. And it was particularly clear Saturday that even though the so-called jazz acts on the bill maintained a fairly even keel of vitality, it was the non-jazz performers like Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, Cuba’s Issac Delgado and veteran bluesman-rocker Buddy Guy who were lighting the hottest fires in the crowd.
Perhaps one day, the “jazz” designation may disappear and it will just be the Playboy Music Festival.
As for the trappings and rituals of Playboy, nothing had changed under the June sun and mild haze in the Hollywood Bowl. The sound continued to be awful — painfully loud, blaring, little or no bass, sometimes ridiculously unbalanced, and nowhere nearly as good as it can be during the Bowl’s regular jazz and world music series.
The show’s pacing remained carefully geared toward the respective phases of getting there, sunning and partying in the afternoon, picnicking during the dinner hours, working off the food with dancing and winding down. Hugh Hefner and entourage still made their entrance at about 5 p.m. and left just before 7. You can set your watch by these rituals.
Kidjo, a fine, agile dancer and a singer of commanding Miriam Makeba-like power, turned in the most dynamic set of the day. She fronted a band that had pinpoint control of one irresistibly catchy Afro-pop groove and revolving guitar riff after another. Kidjo sang some of her international hits, convincingly turned the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” into an Afro-pop workout and delivered some serious speeches in between numbers, including one chastising religions that urge its followers to kill.
Since he appeared at the Playboy in 2003, Delgado has seen his life change as he defected from Cuba last year and took his chances in the so-called free market. To his credit, Delgado did take some musical chances, at one point starting up a number with a unique hybrid groove that perhaps can best be described as a Latinized rock ‘n’ roll Dixieland stomp. But just as this idea was flung out to the dancing crowd, he reverted back to the standard-issue Afro-Cuban salsa that his large 14-member band had been mostly churning out.
There were more innovative intros to come — and again reversions to the familiar grooves. The dancers looked happy, but some listeners wished he had continued with the experiments.
Chris Botti’s slow, ethereal trumpet clarion calls, with their trademark haloes of reverb, seemed like the polar opposite of Delgado’s Cuban heat, coming right afterward in sharp relief. Sometimes Botti’s band could conjure a propulsive jazz-rock background for the trumpeter to sputter and fizz over with some Freddie Hubbard-like energy. But his musical meditations and poses were the predominant specialties of the house — and his crisp, businesslike talks between numbers sounded, well, rather corporate.
Buddy Guy closed the evening with all the crowd-control savvy he has accumulated over a long career in the blues yards, controlling every facet of the tempo of his act with perfect timing. The Bowl’s video screens allowed us to see even more of what he does — particularly the deadpan expressions in closeups — and in turn, that made his grip on the audience even tighter. Guy showed he can still sting with his electric guitar, did a dead-on impression of John Lee Hooker and reprised his many-decades-old ritual of wading into the audience.
Of the jazz acts in the afternoon, the volatile saxophonist-flutist James Carter burned the most brightly in a superheated. mostly post-bop, yet not predictable organ trio, avoiding the usual soul-jazz implications of this format until the last number. He was also the most incendiary player in emcee Bill Cosby’s more-or-less annual Cos of Good Music band, mostly an occasion for reverent tributes to departed musical masters in which Carter’s wonderfully crazed, hotheaded throwbacks to honkers and squealers added needed humor and edge. Ray Parker Jr.’s cutting rhythm guitar in the James Brown tribute was another highlight of the Cos set, but he was gone after only one number.
Elsewhere, Phil Woods ably delivered the bebop goods, wailing for his fellow altoman Benny Carter (who would have turned 100 in August); trumpeter Randy Brecker and tenor saxophonist Bill Evans brought their electric Soulbop band — more bop than soul, perhaps, with Hiram Bullock offering a flamboyant electric guitar solo and a protest vocal number; and the hardy Count Basie Orchestra sounded crisp and robust, though they crawled through “L’il Darlin'” at possibly the slowest tempo ever. None disappointed, but none could be nudged from their safe bases.