Playboy Jazz Festival – Day 2 – Sunday June 14, 2015
A Concert Reflection by A. Scott Galloway
Photos: Mathew Imaging
An afternoon of tradition and roots gave way to an evening of mash-ups and fusions for the second day of the 37th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
As is custom, Sunday started with a student group – The LAUSD/Beyond the Bell All-City Jazz Big Band under the dual direction of Tony White and J.B. Dyas. Though it might have been coincidental, this band played the same song – Stanley Turrentine’s ”Sugar” – that Saturday’s opening student vocal group sang, as well as Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” which the Monk Institute Jazz Ensemble played the day before as well. With all of the jazz classics that could be tackled, I found it disturbing that these war horses – also played ad infinitum on our local jazz station KKJZ – were what these young groups brought forth. Yes, they executed them decently (finest soloist of the set: guitarist Cameron Evans – watch for him), but this writer and jazz fan would like to see both the instructors and students dig deeper – on their own behalf as well as the audience’s.
Next up was The Jones Family Singers, a group that straddled the fence of gospel message with electric guitar-inflected blues grooves further made contemporary by referencing beats popularized by James Brown and Michael Jackson & The Jacksons (“Can You Feel It!”). Lead singer Alexis Jones was a spitfire all set with reverent assist from Fred A. Jones Sr. on “patriarch vocals” (a la Pops Staples). Again, familiarity yielded the most passionate response when they closed with The Isley Brothers’ surefire Gospel-rooted Rock `N Soul crowd-pleaser, “Shout!”
The Dizzy Gillespie Big Band under the direction of veteran electric bassist John Lee provided a backdrop of Bop in their set, beginning with a smokin’ rendition of “Hot House” and the vocal tune “I’ll Be Boppin’” sung by Mark Gross. The legendary Jimmy Heath conducted a piece while Brazil’s Claudio Roditi was featured on some classic soft winds bossa. The finale was Be Bop’s clarion call “Things to Come” featuring all four trumpets upfront in salute to Dizzy, alto sax man Antonio Hart in the role of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, and a showy trap drums solo by Tommy Campbell which included playing behind his back!
New Orleans’ traditionally staid institution The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has apparently dialed down membership requirements from 80 years-old-plus down to 60 years-old and up because today’s set was the liveliest I’ve EVER witnessed from the group (no disrespect intended). With tambourines pounding and a big tuba pumpin’ out the pulse, the septet was extra hep, instigating a good old-fashioned handkerchief waving fit in the crowd with classics such as “Rattle Them Bones” and another vocal featuring saxophonist Charlie Gabriel on the mic.
They were purposefully followed by “Our Point of View,” a special festival group put together by Blue Note Records to recognize its 75th anniversary and soon to record a project together. Showcasing a sextet of today’s young trailblazers that are both fine players and composers – each in his own right, they are drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Derrick Hodge, multi-Grammy-winning keyboardist Robert Glasper, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and guitarist Lionel Loueke. The latter, Loueke, led the set’s most infectious number with “Freedom Beat,” incorporating funk, jazz and the rhythms of his homeland Benin, West Africa.
However, it was some mighty irie vibrations out of Jamaica that turned the entire Hollywood Bowl on its ear and lifted them en masse to their feet when stalwart reggae band Third World took the stage. In what will surely go down in “Playboy Jazz Festival” history as among its greatest “save the day” triumphs, Third World was an 11th hour replacement on the bill for Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and His African Beats band which had visa issues entering the country. In town for a string of California concerts, Third World slid into the spot. But in what proved to be more than a mere convenience, Third World delivered the most far-reaching and eclectic set of the entire 2-day festival while representing reggae to the fullest.
The wildly popular sextet spun around the stage and with an ostinato of deep synth-fortified bass by founding member Richard “Bassie” Daley, ROCKED the crowd with its opening number, “Reggae Ambassador,” followed by “Nothing is Forbidden,” “1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade)” and a cover of the Eurythmics’ 1983 new wave smash, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” That nod of versatility gave way to a call and response chant with the crowd anchored by percussionist Tony “Ruption” Williams on Djembe drum, then member Stephen “Cat” Coore sitting center stage to share a solo on electric cello! THIS was followed by the one-two punch of the reggae band’s massive R&B crossover anthems “Try Jah Love” (written especially for them by Stevie Wonder in 1982) and their 1978 flip on “Now That We’ve Found Love (What Are We Gonna Do With It)” (penned by Philly Soul masters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, and first recorded by soul vocal trio The O’Jays in 1973). But STILL neither of those smash hits was the highlight.
In the band’s rush to comply with time restraints, they still ended ahead of schedule. So they took that moment in front of the Hollywood Bowl’s 17,000+ attendees to pay loving homage to the memory of original Third World lead singer William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke who passed away in February 2014 at age 65 from Leukemia. And for this tribute, they did NOT sing a Bob Marley song or some other expected touchstone. Instead, current lead singer A.J. Brown pulled out the Italian operatic piece “Con te Partiro (Time to Say Goodbye)” (the 1995 signature song of opera great Andrea Bocelli), sang it in its original language to rapturous synthesized strings accompaniment and brought the audience to its feet, many in tears.
“Playboy” host George Lopez – who had already joined in with the band during the call and response – was so moved that he walked Brown off the platform to the foot of the stage to take a solo bow, which he did only hesitantly, wanting instead for the whole band to bask in this glorious moment. Wiping away tears himself, Brown humbly thanked the crowd before hopping back on the already spinning stage with his brethren to a wave of cheers at his back.
Another New Orleans jazz musician, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, represented forward thinking meditations on the music via his all new group, E Collective, performing all new music. The impetus for Blanchard’s latest compositions is the “I Can’t Breathe / Black Lives Matter” movement, reflecting the ongoing and blatantly escalating treachery African American people are rallying from and against in this country. Titles swung from the incendiary “Soldiers” to the more ironic “Tom & Jerry.” Lest you think the message was militancy, thing again; Blanchard found his guitarist Charles Altura – a white cat – on-line, and his pianist, Fabian Almazan, in Cuba.
Neo-Soul star Ledisi has had a long, slow but steady climb to prominence within her hybrid genre of jazz-kissed Rhythm & Blues, her prime time Sunday night slot at Playboy a well-deserved milestone. Her catalog of early self-released records and her current crop through Verve/Universal have revealed her as a highly conscious Soul Sister with top-tier vocal skills and an ever-engaging manner with her audience – particularly its female contingent. Offering up gems such as “Pieces of Me” and her female empowerment anthem “Alright,” she touched a nerve of sheer, deep-seeded woman power as one of only two females the whole day (the other Alexis Jones of The Jones Family Singers from the afternoon).
“Sister Led” was followed by Snarky Puppy, music’s genius-level bad-asses out of Brooklyn by way of North Texas State University. They’ve got fans around the world drooling over their sonically mind-blowing and expertly executed monster mash ups – usually sans-vocals except for its Family Dinner series of recordings on which they bring in special guests (such as Lalah Hathaway on their Grammy-winning song, “Something”). Tonight it was all instrumentals as leader/bassist Michael League put his Mazarati through its paces for their very first “PBJF” appearance on material from its albums Ground Up and We Like It Here. Of special note within the ensemble of rhythm and horns was keyboardist Cory Henry – brilliantly captured from overhead for the big screens – ripping into his Moog synth with fingers of fury. Committed to playing everything different live than on record, they blew longtime fans away while making a slew of new converts who’d been wondering just what a band called Snarky Puppy sounds like…
The final act of the 37th annual Playboy Jazz Festival was Ozomatli, Los Angeles natives who have played the festival on at least five previous occasions (most memorably one late afternoon set where all the members took the stage from out in the audience – singing, chanting and banging percussion instruments). Celebrating their 20th anniversary this show-closing night set, they turned in a colorful and exciting spectacle from the very beginning via a 2-minute intro video of celebrity guests waxing poetic about them – from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti (a fan from WAY back) to comedian Margaret Cho.
The band then exploded on stage flipping traditional Mexican Folk with Hip Hop (complete with professional male and female dancers that changed costumes three times) , Funk (a quick cover of One Way’s “Cutie Pie”), Rock, Pop (special guest Richard Marx joined them for an Ozomatli-fied version of his inescapable `80s hit “Right Here Waiting”) and a break dedicated to both Ornette Coleman (the jazz visionary who just passed away that week) and long lamented blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan – which pretty much sums up not only Ozomatli’s multi-culti vibe but that of the festival that – short of the sexiness factor – would do well to change its moniker to the Playboy World Music Festival.
In his third year as host, George Lopez has finally found his niche, fearlessly but always appropriately inserting himself into the proceedings, truly into the music and making the absolute most out of the short time he has to send one band off as another spins around. I must be honest. I had my reservations about Lopez initially as I saw no connection between him and music, especially jazz. But following a first year where he was barely there to a second year that was little better, three is clearly the charm as George jumped in with both feet like a Vato during a block party double-dutch contest with neighborhood Black girls on a hot summer night.
by A. Scott Galloway
The Urban Music Scene
Read Review for Day 1 of the 37th Playboy Jazz Festival by clicking HERE!