When the middle of June comes a-knocking in Los Angeles, you know that it’s time for the Playboy Jazz Festival, the annual 15 1/2-hour outdoor music party for multiple acts and more than 17,000 partygoers at Hollywood Bowl (June 15-16). And with it comes the usual debate over whether this should be called a jazz festival anymore – at least in the sense of the bebop-descended, acoustical-instrument-driven definition that purists still use.
Who better to ask about this than one of the artists in the weekend’s lineup, keyboardist Robert Glasper, who has said some provocative things about the present state of jazz. Over the phone on Tuesday, I read Glasper a list of the performers who will appear on the bill with him on Saturday– eclectic, genre-jumping pairings like George Duke and Jeffrey Osborne, Naturally 7 and Herbie Hancock, Angelique Kidjo and Hugh Masekela, Poncho Sanchez’s Latin Jazz Band with guest James Carter, Grace Kelly and Phil Woods, and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band with Lee Ritenour.
“Oh wow, great!” he exclaimed. “You can call that a jazz festival. I’ve been to a lot of ‘jazz’ festivals where there is no jazz. If you play a festival outside, it’s called jazz. This sounds like a jazz festival to me.”
Glasper’s group, the Robert Glasper Experiment, has been busy fusing together idioms without regard to boundaries – attracting controversy from the usual sources and also much attention and sales for his latest Blue Note album, “Black Radio.” He just finished a sequel, “Black Radio, Vol. 2,” which will be out in September.
While Glasper, 35, takes many of his cues from Hancock (“He is one of the people who never had chains musically; he opened the door for persons like me.”), he also cites bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Christian Scott, both Playboy Jazz Fest alums, as musicians who are trying to move jazz forward. “Those two and myself are the ones doing it in my generation on a bigger scale,” he says. “They have a big platform to jump off of, and they do it.”
As for what he will do during his own set at the Playboy, Glasper says, “I have no idea. I never know what I’m going to play until five minutes until I walk out onto the stage.
“I’m always checking out the crowd and I always change in the middle of the set,” he adds. “Even five minutes into the set, we do the first two songs and read the crowd and go from there.”