Playboy Jazz Festival 2012Entertainment, Jazz N LA — By Buddy Sampson on June 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm
A Mellow Affair Dominated By Sheila E
By Buddy Sampson
I’ve covered the Playboy Jazz Festival since 1990 and I’ve written several articles on the Fest since that time. The Festival, although it’s called The Playboy Jazz Festival, really should be renamed The Playboy Music Festival, with its eclectic mix of artists and genres. But this is the first year I’ve been conflicted as to what to write. The energy and passion felt a little different this year. So I went out of my box and called a few of my press colleagues in the industry that attended the Festival. My colleagues and friends are from the biggest publications and radio outlets in the city. Some of us are musicians, like myself. I happen to love R&B and Funk, rock, Pop, Blues, progressive jazz and some traditional jazz. One journalist friend and colleague is a jazz purist. Another journalist likes soul jazz and smooth jazz.
All of us agreed it was a wonderful event and we all enjoyed it. We agreed it was an amazing event, but sometimes, a mellow affair. And all of us agreed that the acts should have been placed in different spots in the show. For example, every single one of us felt that the Louie Cruz Beltran Ensemble was so exciting, dancable and fun, they belonged in the 6PM spot on Saturday, when people were really ready to party. And Spectrum Road, which was actually a tribute band to the late great drummer Tony Williams, belonged early in the Sunday set. By the time they performed to close the show, the audience was tired and unfortunately, Spectrum Road played to a lot of empty seats-it seemed like there were maybe 500 people in the audience. Those that left missed an electric performance by drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, who, although she channeled Tony Williams in her playing, had sensational chops of her own. They also missed the searing guitaring of former Living Colour member Vernon Reid, the colorful playing of organist/keyboardist John Medeski and the solid lines of Jack Bruce, who seemed like a smiling mad scientist on stage. As a bass player myself, I might have wished he would have done some soloing. Bruce was content, however, to pass the ball to the other terrific musicians on stage.
However, my press friends and I pretty much disagreed on everything else. I thought Sheila E dominated the Festival. She played with the passion and desire that I would have liked to see some of the other acts had. She invited her dad, Pete Escovedo to the stage, who sang a impromtu version of “Fly Me To The Moon,” which was enjoyable. But the set clearly belonged to Sheila E. Sheila, who took the stage at the Playboy Jazz Festival for the first time with her own band (she’s performed with Prince, Lionel Richie and many others) was in a zone and had the Hollywood Bowl audience whipped up into a frenzy. Just to see her passion and how hard she hit the drums was a signal that once she had her opportunity to shine in her own band, she was determined to take full advantage. And she was awesome, performing Prince’s “Erotic City” and “The Glamourous Life” among several songs. Some of the artists on the Fest could have taken a page out of her book and played with a lot more energy.
One of my other press friends thought The Cookers, which had Eddie Henderson, Billy Harper, Craig Handy, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart in the ensemble, dominated. It’s hard to argue with that. Another friend thought Ramsey Lewis dominated and I did like his version of the Stylistic tune, “Betcha My Golly Wow,” a tune I’ve always adored. I loved the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They captured the essence of the Festival and had the audience dancing, doing conga lines, waving hankerchiefs and partying. I love bands that have their audience in mind. And lets face it- many people come to the Festival to party.
Throughout the Festival, I was looking for energy and chops. I found that energy, surprisingly, in the Cos Of Good Music, Bill Cosby’s band. Cosby, who announced last week that it would be his last Festival as Master of Ceremonies, put together a sensational band, dominated by the women performers in the ensemble. Erena Terakubo on tenor saxophone was an absolute monster that afternoon, amazing everyone with her unbelievable chops. Tia Fuller was also as amazing as Terakubo on the alto saxophone. Ingrid Jensen on trumpet played fluid lines that would have made Dizzy Gillespie proud. She was amazing. The band was rounded out by the solid playing of Farid Barron on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass, Ndugu Chancler on drums, Babatunde Lea on percussion and Matthew Garrison on bass guitar. The Christian McBride Big Band was great, but I wished at some point in his set that he’d clear out the stage and bring out his electric bass, along with his upright bass and play with a small ensemble. Still his bass playing was solid and booming. Ozomatli, the band that electrified the Bowl a few years ago was very good, but I like the group better when they combine their Latin flavor with hip hop and other genres, with makes for a different but innovative foray into musical strata. On this night, however, they stuck to their roots and played traditional mariachi and Latin music.
Another artist that bought energy was KG Omulo, a singer from Kenya, the second act on the Sunday show. His singing and passion made his set special. Terri Lyne Carrington was special and she had Tia Fuller and Ingrid Jenson in the group as well, along with special guests Dianne Reeves, Carmen Lundy, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gretchen Parlato as guest singers. It was amazing to see Angela Davis on stage, the activist that helped shape Black pride. Keb Mo was as solid as ever and I always love his funky style of blues.
Now Robin Thicke should have closed the Sunday show. Although some of my press friends thought he was a little misplaced in the Festival, I thought his music was pleasant and allowed you to grab your date a little closer. We get why he was on the Festival. He was a definite lady pleaser. You can’t have much of a problem with that.
In summary, when you’ve attended the Playboy Jazz Festival as many years as I have, you get a sense of each Festival and realize each Festival has a feel of its own. Playboy 2012, in the Playboy Jazz Festival tradition was fun as usual, but a mellow affair.
All photos by the sensational Malcolm Ali.