Artistry in the daylight, party under the stars: That was the guiding principle for the 31st edition of Southern California’s biggest jazz fest, and it worked wonders until sundown. The heady music of Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland played well prior to the dinner hour, and Patti Austin’s disco-era hit machine set the table for the party-hearty finale, but bombast, flagging energy and repetition killed the dance-in-the-aisle atmosphere that usually fuels the fest’s closing acts.
Jazz of the adventurous sort — infectious music that offered turbulent and buoyant moments — provided the highlights of Day 2. As is its custom, the Playboy Jazz Festival comprises a mix of brand names, iconoclasts, pop stars and young-uns; but at the end of the day, the men who have logged the most time on the bandstand proved to be the day’s finest.
Shorter, two months shy of his 76th birthday, continues to challenge the notion of how an elder statesman should approach music. With drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci creating a steady rumble underneath his tenor and soprano saxes, Shorter held notes like “om” chants and, with pianist Geoff Keezer filling in for Danilo Perez, evoked vibrant passages of late-period John Coltrane. Much of Shorter’s 50 minutes onstage evoked the musical interpretation of an earthquake — jarring noisy moments followed by a purposeful walk filled with the intent of recovery and rebirth.
Holland, the extraordinary British bassist making a rare appearance with his 13-piece big band, delivered a rich and invigorating program during the day’s most bedeviling spot — the 6-7 p.m. hour when dinners are being delivered and coolers opened en masse. Opting for tunes he originally recorded with smaller units and material that appeared on his first big band album rather than the recent “Pass It On,” Holland made the big band format sound modern and vibrant. He soloed only once, on the meaty “How’s Never,” leaving ample room for saxophonists Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, vibist Steve Nelson and his army of trombonists and trumpeters to express themselves fully.
The trifecta of the day was scored by Monty Alexander, a Jamaican who has plied the jazz trade for more than 40 years but more recently found success connecting with his island roots. Ostensibly, his Jazz & Roots band combines a jazz trio, featuring the great New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley, and a reggae quartet. His gimmick — and this works more often than not — is to take a reggae melody and move it into groove-oriented jazz. Much of it sounds like variations on Bob Marley’s “Jammin’,” though excursions into gospel (“Down by the Riverside”) and Miles Davis’ “Milestones” proved the venture’s possibilities are considerable.
The major introduction of the day belonged to Alfredo Rodriguez, a 23-year-old Cuban pianist whom Quincy Jones has taken under his wing. He demonstrated technical prowess, a kinship with Art Tatum and a flair for the rococo, but did not connect with his bassist and drummer until the final tune in his five-song set. Armed with a mountain of ideas that he expresses with lightning speed, Rodriguez is big on stopping and starting. He has yet to figure out how to connect one run to the next, and when he proffers a string of unrelated runs, it comes off similar to an overture for a Broadway musical. Self-editing will help this gifted young man, as will the employment of a steady band.
Filling the afternoon with various jazz efforts — Anat Cohen made the clarinet cerebrally intriguing, too — the night was left to the party. Each act did what was expected — though it was a surprise when Austin sang a version of “Hey Joe,” Hendrix style — yet none caught fire.
Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, whose band includes two guitars and at least a half-dozen percussionists, played straightforward ju-ju music that started infectiously but grew repetitious. Kenny G, whose image on the two video screens included subtitles that leaned toward the obsequious, gave a performance that was straight out of the late ’80s — one banal melody after another with some showboating on the soprano sax. Oscar Hernandez returned musicianship to the bandstand immediately thereafter, but the salsa rhythms were not enough to hold onto the crowd that had started thinning during Ade’s set.