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)

There’s a little bit more to Seth MacFarlane than his voice-over and songwriting work in television and movies. For his June 11 set at Playboy, he set aside his originals in favor of a program of mostly Sinatra-identified tunes, sung in a pleasant baritone-tenor voice that doesn’t try anything too adventurous.

Fortunately, MacFarlane has the best Hollywood musicians money can buy, in an orchestra conducted by Joel McNeely. He also has a razor-sharp sense of humor. “I love these old songs,” he said to the crowd, “because they remind me there was a time when music wasn’t just Swedish guys dickin’ around on laptops.”

Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman added an exciting dimension to the trio The Bad Plus, trampling bar lines as the rhythm swirled around underneath him. He was the band’s main source of melody, his sound weaving through various tonal centers.

The Cuba large ensemble Los Van Van was smart enough to overlay “Birdland” and “Hey Jude” during their set, a mash-up that stirred the crowd. Less stirring was omnivorous New Orleans keboardist Jon Batiste, who appeared with his band Stay Human for a set of monochromatic tunes and over-long vamps. More impressive was his featured saxophonist, Grace Kelly.

The Crescent City vibe continued on June 12 with trumpeter Christian Scott’s Stretch Music band, which featured two trap drummers creating a kind of saw-toothed groove—one with a djembe for a bass drum. Guest artist Elena Pinderhughes on flute was a welcome note of melodic grace to a set that ended as though its plug was pulled.

During a separate set, Scott’s uncle, the alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, played up the Mardi Gras roots of New Orleans jazz, complete with the leader’s ferocious Creole chants over “Iko Iko.”

Holding the banner high for straightahead jazz was tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, who appeared with guest Jimmy Heath. The veteran Heath put down his tenor for a soprano sax reverie on Ellington’s “Day Dream.” The group was anchored by the rock-solid rhythm section of pianist George Cables, bassist David Williams and drummer Willie Jones III, who is proving to be the Billy Higgins of his generation.

Robert Cray, joined by special guests Roy Gaines and Sonny Landreth—guitarists all—tried to channel B.B. King’s legacy and got the ball on the green, if not in the cup.

The cooperative Fourplay, now 20 years old, played the most harmonically brilliant music heard all weekend. Unfortunately, the low-key dynamics and high-level interplay of pianist Bob James, guitarist Chuck Loeb, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason sailed right over the heads of most of the restless audience.

The unquestionable hit of the weekend was r&b singer Janelle Monáe. With a surging band, aerobic background singers and dance-friendly material, she got the entire Hollywood Bowl up and moving. She cleverly paid lip service to departed icons James Brown (even copping bits of his cape shtick), Prince and Muhammad Ali—tributes that the crowd embraced wholeheartedly.

Monáe has an estimable voice, and she clearly poured everything she had into her high-energy set. Percussionist Pete Escovedo’s band was comparatively anticlimactic, despite some fine reed solos from Justo Almario.

As host emcee, comic George Lopez has added a new dimension to the Playboy Jazz Fest: politics and social commentary. While previous emcees have had fun with sports rivalries (the NBA Finals typically happen on or around the same weekend as the fest), they’ve always avoided partisan rhetoric.

Lopez, however, jabbed Donald Trump, calling repeatedly for “no walls.” Escovedo ran with the Trump theme and joked about using a tunnel dug by his “friend,” the murderous drug lord El Chapo. Stick to the music, gentlemen.

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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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