The Playboy Jazz Festival 2011Jazz N LA — By Buddy Sampson on June 15, 2011 at 8:33 am
Buddy Guy and The Roots excel at one of the best Playboy Jazz Festivals in years.
By Buddy Sampson
The Playboy Jazz Festival 2011, a two day jazz festival, presented an amazing display of music on June 11th and June 12th at The Hollywood Bowl. The extravaganza, threatened with “June gloom-type weather,” surprised patrons, not only by the sun showing its presence each day, but by the shining display of musical artistry, showmanship (or showwomanship) and well, just plain fun. “Initially, 33 years ago, it was going to be a one-time thing for our 25th anniversary,” said Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner. “What I didn’t know at the time was jazz had never been that successful at The Bowl. And with the combination of George Wein and Playboy, we put it all together and turned it into something that became something iconic.”
Hosted by comedian Bill Cosby, The Saturday show opened with The LAUSD All City High School Big Band, which was under the direction of Tony White and JB Dyas. Their musicianship belied their age. If you didn’t see how young they were and covered your eyes, you would have thought they were much older. They were excellent. Taking the stage next was the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, followed by The Cos of Good Music, Bill Cosby’s band, which featured Geri Allen, George Bohanon, Dwayne Burno, Anat Cohen, Babatunde Lea and Alphonso Johnson.
On drums was Ndugu Chancler, who feels strongly that kids should be more schooled and educated in jazz, especially at home. “How many parents do you see bought their kids to the concert?” asked Chancler. “They’ll take them to a baseball game, they’ll take them to a basketball game and not bring them to a jazz concert. It starts at home. You can’t have everyone else doing our dirty laundry and we don’t do it at home first. Yes, I teach and Geri teaches and Alphonso teaches and Babatunde teaches and part of the problem we have as teachers is the homework hasn’t been done at all at home.” Alphonso Johnson, who played electric bass for the Cos of Good Music, was candid backstage about his musical influences. “I love James Brown, Paul Chambers, Tony Williams, everybody,” he said. “I listened to so much music over the years, there’s no separating the impact of R&B or jazz or even classical music. It’s all part of things that inspired me to want to play.” Cosby was once again in rare form, giving the audience tons of laughs as he played around with the musicians on stage. And the Cos of Good Music was a great musical backdrop for his playful antics. They were great.
The party started with the next group, A Night In Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans with the Rebirth Brass Band, Donald Harrison, Jr. Kermit Ruffins, Dr. Michael White and Big Sam Williams. Their New Orleans sound got the audience waving their towels, napkins and handkerchiefs. A great time was had by all and many of The Bowl audience were spotted dancing to their music. SFJazz Collective, which celebrated the music of Stevie Wonder, featured Stefon Harris, Avishai Cohen, Greg Osby, David Sanchez, Edward Simon, Matt Penman, Eric Harland and Robin Eubanks. They performed complex versions of Stevie Wonder’s songs. Their horn section was nothing short of excellent and one of the featured players was Robin Eubanks, who excels on the trombone. Dianne Reeves added her vocal prowess in the next act of the show and she wowed the audience.
And then it was time to put on the dancing shoes. The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra took the stage. Their music had patrons in the aisles dancing. In fact, because the show was so strong, there was a noticeable absence of beach balls being hit around the arena, a Bowl tradition. Palmieri is a welcome sight to any stage, because he knows how to get an audience partying. That’s what music is all about. Next on stage was Fourplay, which featured Bob James, Nathan East, Harvey Mason and new guitarist Chuck Loeb, who replaced long time guitarist Larry Carlton. Their smooth jazz sound delighted the audience. But the undisputed champ of the evening was The Roots, which featured Terence Blanchard on one song. The Roots, a Philadelphia-based band, were nothing short of original and fantastic. They combined hip hop, rap and jazz for a combustible mixture that had most in the audience on their feet. Their showmanship, humor and musicianship were amazing to behold. They are best known as the TV band for the Jimmy Fallon show. Look out for these amazing artists.
There’s some debate as to which of the two days was the better musical day. But our vote goes to the Sunday show, which began with the Pullum High School Band, under the direction of Fernando Pullum. The young future stars began the day with a blast, and Cosby had fun with them, making several jokes. Carlos Varela took hold of the stage, with a bossa nova sound that was mellow and poignant. His music was beautiful and thoughtful. Our favorite jazz band of the day was Geri Allen and her Timeline Band. Allen played the piano like a woman possessed, soaring through the realm of jazz with ease. Hearing her playing and comping on the piano was reminiscent of Herbie Hancock. She was nothing short of fantastic. John Scofield and Robben Ford took the stage and their fusion styled jazz was “on hit.” Bill Cunliffe and the Resonance Big Band with Marian Petrescu took the stage in a tribute to Oscar Peterson.
But then the Sunday party started. Naturally 7, an a cappella group that are nothing short of spectacular, took the stage. The group is funny and their voices imitate instruments perfectly. They had the audience partying like there was no tomorrow. If you closed your eyes, you would have thought there were 7 musical instruments on stage. What made them very humorous was how they did their singing. They played air guitar, air bass, air drums, well you get the picture. Naturally 7 was the most interesting group that took the stage.
Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown, which featured Vusi Mahlasela and two members of James Brown’s band, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley continued the Sunday party. When they did the James Brown song, “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they encouraged the audience, no matter what race, to say “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” It was a moment that would have made James Brown and the great Martin Luther King Jr. proud. They were funky and fun, an amazing group. But this day, quite simply, belonged to Buddy Guy. Buddy, as a beautiful lady next to us said, “teased” the audience into an absolute frenzy. His playing was spectacular, his vocals were strong and his showmanship makes you forget that he’s getting up in age.
In an act of graciousness and a moment that seems like a passing of the torch, Guy bought 12 year old wunderkind guitarist Quinn Sullivan to the stage. Sullivan was simply electrifying, riffing on his guitar with precision and singing with passion. A true star is born. Closing the show was Harmony 3 with Ronnie Laws, Walter Beasley and Stanley Jordan.
The Playboy Jazz Festival 2011 was one of the best two day festivals in recent memory. It was truly entertaining and deserves to be in the annals of music history.
Special thanks to the staff of Playboy, which includes Terry and Rachel and the staff of Nina Gordon Public Relations, including Nina Gordon, Diana and others, for their kindness, professionalism and for helping make the Playboy Jazz Festival 2011 a spectacular event.