Salvant, Redman Bring Jazz Flair to Pop-Heavy Playboy Fest

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Cécile McLorin Salvant (foreground) at the 2016 Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles on June 11.

(Photo: Mathew Imaging/Playboy Jazz Festival)

In the 38-year history of the Playboy Jazz Festival, its producers have practiced a fair amount of brinkmanship regarding jazz and non-jazz bookings. The balance, of late, has definitely tipped in favor of pop acts. While the festival’s Saturday programming traditionally has been stacked in jazz’s favor, both days feature bands that punch the “party” button and get the booty-shakers out of their seats. Conditioned to end each night on adrenaline, closing acts are always loud and beat-heavy. That’s just the price of the ticket.

The 2016 edition, which took place June 11–12, featured its fair share of musical wild cards, like the silky smooth a capella harmony of Natural 7 and Honduran singer Aurelio. His guitar-and-percussion-driven music, lightly amplified, was warm and lively. He would have fared better in a small venue.

So would singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose repertoire includes vocal tunes by Bob Dorough (“I’ve Got Just About Everything”), Blanche Calloway (“Growling Dan”) and Burt Bacharach (“Wives And Lovers”), Rubberlegs Williams (“What’s The Matter Now?”) and others.

In her June 11 performance at the Playboy Jazz Fest, Salvant re-harmonized songs in her characteristically mellifluous voice, jumping octaves here and stretching a vowel there. She excelled at fast tempos, which didn’t stop her from imparting each song’s message with feeling. Pianist Aaron Diehl’s strong rhythm made him a fine hole card.

Wunderkind pianist Joey Alexander also played with authority, though his set was hampered by sound problems. Bassist Dan Chmielinski was miked too loud, and his booming sound might have driven the 13-year old to pound the keys a little harder than he should have. The child prodigy has one speed (fast) and one volume (loud), but he possesses such amazing facility that these issues are sure to resolve themselves over time.

For all intents and purposes, John Beasley’s MONK’estra began the weekend and established the festival’s jazz gravitas. Known for his film and TV composing, as well as his work for the Monk Institute, the pianist is often heard around Los Angeles as a valuable utility player. It’s great to see him gaining recognition for his own adventurous leader project: a big band stocked with some of the best jazz musicians in L.A.

Beasley fronts the band in the Butch Morris “conduction” mode—cueing soloists, manipulating dynamics and conjuring backgrounds. His arrangements emphasize the delicious rhythmic fracturing found in the Monk canon, careening like a runaway freight train on the circular “Skippy” and casting “Evidence” in stop-time.

Alto saxophonist Danny Janklow blazed over Beasley’s accelerando, and trumpeter Dontae Winslow rapped over “’Round Midnight.” Another tune used a tuba backbeat and growling trombone to place Monk in the company of Ellington’s band, or a New Orleans funk outfit. It proved that Monk’s music is still fertile ground for innovation.

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