Last Wednesday, Bill Cosby announced that the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival will be his last as emcee; Cosby has fronted the event since 1979, missing only 1985, 2005 and Day Two of 2004. If this is indeed his last, it’s serendipitous that his current edition of the Cos’ of Good Music, plus a surprise cameo later on, were among the highlights — and not for sentimental reasons — of a day that featured some strong contenders.
This Cos’ of Good Music was most notable for its three female soloists in the front line — outstanding regardless of gender, each with her own musical personality. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blew cool and blue, sometimes quite slyly; Erena Terakubo, only 20, burned brightly on tenor sax, a genuine ascending talent; and alto saxophonist Tia Fuller cut the boldest profile, often venturing outside the lines. With drummer Ndugu Chancler mixing up his pitches and Cosby adding unpredictable direction, this perennial mainstay of the Playboy fest ritual turned in something really special.
Later, toward the end of a set by Christian McBride’s mostly conventional big band, whose main distinguishing features were the commanding, front-and-center bass lines and solos of its leader, Cosby came on to do his vocal for “Hikky-Burr,” the theme of his first, great, now almost-forgotten sitcom, “The Bill Cosby Show.” The song lit a fire under the band with its fatback beat, and singlehandedly lifted the set.
A late addition to the schedule, the Louie Cruz Beltran Ensemble, was an unexpected triumph at the top of the day. The veteran Bakersfield-born conguero led a sharp, uncluttered Latin jazz ensemble through some choice `60s material (“Grazing in the Grass,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Spooky”) deftly translated into Latin grooves. Beltran would have been an even bigger hit had this set been scheduled just after the dinner hour.
There was virtuosity to burn in the small-combo edition of Quincy Jones’s brainchild, the Global Gumbo All-Stars, yet the main value of their set was as a compass for jazz’s future — pointing southeast to Cuba and further on to Africa. Among them, the West Africans (bassist Richard Bona and guitarist Lionel Loueke) and the Cubans (pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and drummer Francisco Mela) produced a complex, cerebral, percolating collage of home styles, with Rodriguez’s excursion into prepared piano (with paper sheets on the strings) adding a wild edge.
Speaking of wild, Sheila E. expended the most sheer physical energy of anyone to rouse the crowd — battering her timbales and drum kit, reviving old material from her Prince days, doing a copycat impression of Santana, and frantically signing autographs. She pulled out all the showbiz stops, and even brought her dad, Pete Escovedo, out to sing “Fly Me to the Moon” in elegant swing-band style. Rouse the crowd she did, but musically it was mostly a loud patchwork of salsa, funk and whatnot.
Closest to Sheila E. on the Richter scale was the closing act, Ozomatli, which emerged from the audience, as is their wont, accompanied by a parade of luridly colorful dancers. Ozomatli fired away with a more interesting blend of sounds, a unique assembly of scraps of found material from James Brown, the Staples and the Tempts to rap, reggae and the chords of “Louie Louie.”
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings came across as a routine R&B revue with the requisite energy but without a particularly striking presence or material. The six-man brass front line of the Soul Rebels produced some raucous, unbuttoned New Orleans-based fun, but not enough to get the afternoon crowd very excited. And as for Boney James, now fully recovered from a 2010 auto accident, his appearance was a boon to smooth jazz fans, but not to those who don’t cotton to high-note sax riffs repeated into the ground.