At the Playboy Jazz Festival, that perennial Southern California June music ritual and block party, changes in the routine are often difficult to spot. But differences there were on Saturday’s opening concert, just enough to notice. One couldn’t be helped – the unusually chilly June-gloom weather that settled over most of the day and night.
Another was the new delayed starting time, 3 p.m., where the dinner hour came upon us all of a sudden. Opening acts no longer automatically get the short end of the timing stick; the emerging young trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire got a full hour-long set to show his stuff. And this time, a single act, the Roots, served up both the high and the low points of a choppy day of music where there were few unifying currents.
At first, one’s reaction to the Roots – the veteran Philadelphia rap act and house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” – was fatigue, due to a final pounding sonic assault after a full day of badly-engineered sound (no changes there, alas). Sometimes the funk moved, but mostly it was applied with a bludgeon that ripped painfully through your gut, especially Damon Bryson’s sousaphone. But suddenly, in a most-welcome nod to the late rap progenitor Gil Scott-Heron, they hit a marvelous groove in Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle” – joined by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard joyously playing at the top of his lungs. We should have heard more from the Blanchard/Roots alliance, but then he was gone.
Akinmusire – the Oakland-born trumpeter who was recently signed by Blue Note – showed that his decisive triumph at the Thelonious Monk Competition in Hollywood in 2007 was the launching pad for an important career. He sounded relaxed, thoughtful, not a bravura sound but burning on a steady medium-low flame, and he is not afraid to venture a bit on the outside of his post-bop-free-bop orbit. Indeed, Akinmusire’s whole quintet played with equal intelligence at up to 25 minutes a shot, the rhythm section mixing it up yet providing enough of a forward push.
Two acts seemingly were strategically positioned to whip up the crowd before and after the dinner hour – and both did so only in spurts. The touring project “A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans”
consisted of the Rebirth Brass Band fronted by former Young Lion Donald Harrison, Jr. (alto sax), Dr. Michael White (clarinet), Kermit Ruffins (trumpet), and Buddy Bolden’s great-grandson Big Sam Williams
(trombone) – and they got the white napkins waving early with rocking takes on “Skokiaan” and “Chameleon.” Yet they may have peaked too soon; only with a last-gasp segue into “The Saints” did the set return to its high energy level.
Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa Orchestra could build up tremendous momentum reminiscent of their truly great set at Playboy in 2006, the call-and response vocals fusing with the groove and Palmieri adding humorous discordant comments on the Kurzweil digital piano. But at other crucial times, the rhythm section seemed uncharacteristically out of sync.
The SFJAZZ Collective’s roving survey of the music of various icons turned to Stevie Wonder, transforming his songs with often surprising twists – a “My Cherie Amour” turned dissonant with saxophonists Greg Osby and David Sanchez going at at each other, a somnolent chart of “Creepin'” that suddenly gained volume and energy at the close, Stefan Harris’s always-sparkling vibraphone over the backbeat of “Do I Do.”
The “supergroup” Fourplay has remained intact for 21 years in three of its four slots; only the guitar chair has changed hands. Saturday, Playboy got its first look at the latest Fourplay guitarist Chuck Loeb, whose smooth, competent, fluid playing fit right into the carefully-worked-chemistry of Bob James’s piano, Nathan East’s bass and Harvey Mason’s drums. Otherwise, business-as-usual here.
Dianne Reeves’s stentorian voice boomed through the loudspeakers in a respectable set that closed before her allotted time was up, forcing her to skillfully ad lib on the fly before finally settling into her specialty, “Afro-Blue.” Perennial emcee Bill Cosby returned to “conduct” another edition of his Cos’ Of Good Music band, which veered from some good, strong, wah-wah-powered `80s Miles Davis jazz-funk to a lazy ballad-tempo take on “Laura” – with trombonist George Bohanon excelling in both extremes.