For the first time in its 40-year history, the Playboy Jazz Festival returned to the Hollywood Bowl without its founder, Hugh Hefner, who passed away in September at the age of 91. Apart from a brief tribute delivered by his son Cooper, it was business as usual for the venerable two-day event at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
The festival sometimes can feel like it’s jazz in name only; this year, soul singer Anthony Hamilton and venerable funk group Tower of Power closed out Saturday and Sunday, respectively. But before they brought their more mainstream sounds to the stage, Playboy Jazz served up an admirably eclectic lineup, highlighted by some forward-thinking young jazz ensembles (Kneebody, Snarky Puppy), living legends (Ramsey Lewis, Charles Lloyd, Lee Ritenour) and crowd-pleasing newcomers (pianist Matthew Whitaker, whose trio was a Saturday afternoon highlight).
The lineup was especially strong on rising stars from Latin America, starting with Monsieur Periné, a Colombian ensemble whose insouciant mix of cumbia, gypsy jazz and French chanson pop got the Saturday crowd up and dancing. Its set was followed by 26-year-old Havana singer Daymé Arocena, who came across as an Afro-Cuban Ella Fitzgerald, scat-singing over her trio’s swaying rhumbas and cha-cha-chas, and radiating charisma as she exhorted the audience to sing along to her “Don’t Unplug My Body,” which lured the event’s MC, George Lopez, out from the wings for an impromptu slow dance with the singer.
Following Arocena was an even more impressive performer, and arguably the highlight of the entire festival: Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda, who brings a level of imagination and athleticism to his instrument that is frequently jaw-dropping. His special guest for the set, French harmonica player Grégoire Malet, seemed to coax ever more thrillingly percussive runs from Castaneda, as the two virtuosos traded solos, with trombonist Marshall Gilkes and percussionist Rodrigo Villalon’s occasionally weighing in with their own Latin jazz flourishes. But the harpist saved his most gorgeous work for a solo piece, “Jesus de Nazareth,” that silenced the chatty crowd with its luminous grace.
Saturday’s two most seasoned jazz acts, the Miles Electric Band (a tribute to Davis’ fusion years, featuring several of his latter-day sidemen) and guitarist Lee Ritenour’s bluesy quartet with keyboardist Dave Grusin, delivered pleasant but unremarkable sets, as did the hoary Count Basie Orchestra, which helped Sunday afternoon patrons find their seats to the familiar strains of “April in Paris” and “In the Wee Small Hours.” After that, the veterans got more interesting—starting with the Hubtones, an 80th birthday tribute to late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, featuring an all-star lineup of horn players including Randy Brecker, Nicholas Payton, David Weiss and Jeremy Pelt (pulling double duty after playing the lead role in the Miles Electric Band).
Focusing on Hubbard compositions from his ’60s catalog, the quartet of trumpeters, with stellar backing by pianist Benny Green, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Roy McCurdy, traded solos that paid homage to Hubbard’s lyrical, yet forceful, style while still leaving room for each player’s individual strengths. As robust as ever at 72, Brecker was the standout, imparting a rich, almost saxophone-like tone to the opening phrases of his solo on “Up Jumped Spring” and unleashing some dizzyingly technical runs and piercing high notes on “D Minor Mint.” But every soloist shone at times—especially Pelt, whose swagger and tone came closest to emulating Hubbard’s, and Green, who echoed McCoy Tyner’s early work with Hubbard in his blues-informed solos and comps.
After an occasionally rambling, but often fascinating, set by tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his group the Marvels, with Lucinda Williams providing an earthy presence on guest vocals, 83-year-old Ramsey Lewis took the stage with his quintet. Lewis, who has announced he’ll retire at the end of 2018, remains a polarizing figure in jazz circles to this day, viewed by some as a soul-jazz pioneer and others as a pop lightweight. But on Sunday night, none of that mattered, as he delivered a rollicking, age-defying set.
Lewis seemed largely uninterested in revisiting his most famous, mid-’60s period, instead focusing on originals and covers from the ’70s. After opening with “Tequila Mockingbird,” the breezy title track from the 1977 album he recorded with members of Earth, Wind and Fire, the pianist teasingly told the audience, “I don’t know if you’re all ready for this. We’re gonna see.” He then launched into a medley of covers that were his set’s highlights: a stately version of The Stylistics’ 1972 Philly soul ballad “Betcha By Golly, Wow” and a confidently funky take on Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City.” Both had the crowd singing along — and from there, Lewis had them in the palm of his hand, leading his excellent band through a variety of styles, from blues to rhumba to boogie-woogie.
Lewis’ set demonstrated, in convincing fashion, why he’s outlasted his critics—an observation that also could be made of the Playboy Jazz Festival itself, which remains a smartly programmed showcase for its titular genre, despite its more pop-minded headliners. DB