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Playboy Jazz Celebrates 25 Years of Good Music

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By Taylor Jordan

The 25th annual Playboy Jazz Festival offered only a few surprises. Legends and master artists -- Dave Brubeck, Roy Haynes, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Dave Holland, Al Jarreau, L.A.’s Home Grown All-Stars and the eighth version of Cos of Good Music -- still swing, stimulate and soothe, even after decades of energizing, culturally creative and trend-setting musicianship.

Saxophonist Boney James and Guitars and Saxes’ Richard Elliott, Peter White, Jeff Golub and Steve Cole are still mediocre, mundane, repetitive pop artists passing as jazz musicians.

Ozomatli remains obscene and inappropriate for a genuine jazz festival. The rump humpers and L.A. party kink crowd loved ‘em, even down to the third year of hearing m.f. and other profane garbage shouted into the noise they make.

To organizers and producer George Wein, this advice: Stop already with obscene Ozomatli. The bewildered look on master of ceremonies Bill Cosby’s face reflecting confusion about what this group has to do with jazz ought to tell you something. Please no more of this hybrid hip-hop horror.

Percussionist and ethnomusicologist Bill Summers, amazing trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the master members of Los Hombres Calientes provided the most defining moment of the two-day festival at the Hollywood Bowl by musically and spiritually connecting the African roots and evolutionary expressions of jazz.

Summers’ chant calling on ancient African spirits was answered through the fingers, feet, lips, bodies, souls and talents of the multigenerational musicians appropriately named Los Hombres Calientes. These are indeed hot men. They stylistically started with the originating rhythms of Africa which form the foundation of jazz, mixed classical European standards of fluid movement, stirred in the richness of slave field hollers and church hymns/gospel music, tossed in the syncopated styles of blues and rounded it all out with swing, bebop and modern jazz infused with Afro-Cuban and Latin energies.

Mayfield’s incredible responses to Summers’ West African calls and riveting rhythms rapidly rendered on a simply stupendous improvisational lead into Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “Night in Tunisia” left mouths gasping and breathless.

Three is a good number. The other two most memorable moments involved age extremes.

Rene Olstead’s youthful demeanor disappeared when she dazzled the crowd with a wonderfully mature and intense version of Etta James’ signature song “At Last” on the Cos of Good Music set. It ain’t easy tackling a song made famous by a famous artist, but the 13-year-old’s Father’s Day salute with her dad’s favorite song sparked 18,000 pairs of feet and hands to give up the festival’s first full standing ovation.

Cosby’s latest hand-picked favorites -- Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Henderson, Pete Christlieb, Ndugu Chancler, Dwayne Burno, Harold Mabern and Keschia Lynn Potter -- immediately demonstrated how versatile and adept real jazz instrumentalists are. Their accompaniment was perfectly pristine, beautifully giving Renee room to soar and prove to any doubting Thomases in the audience she’s not a baby vocally.

Brubeck remains a pinnacle performer at age 82, but for some incredible reason his piano wasn’t adequately miked to carry his remarkable harmonies to the upper regions of the bowl. The magical moment came when Jarreau joined Brubeck for a dynamic meeting on “Take Five.” Brubeck’s eyes shone brightly and his mouth spread into a big, bodacious smile as he, and the audience, marveled at Jarreau’s scatting signature notes of “Take Five.” The joyful exchange between Brubeck, a legend, and multiple Grammy Award-winning vocalist Jarreau will be the stuff of conversations for years to come.

Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble, fresh from a New York City engagement with virtuoso Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as one of the nation’s top three teen jazz bands, proved that talent has nothing to do with age.
Lizz Wright’s sultry singing style warmed all body parts. She’s on the fast track to becoming a true jazz diva by virtue of her incredible talent, unique phrasing and exotic beauty.

Her voice soothes and seduces. She isn’t a gyrating midriff pop singer using physical beauty to disguise limited vocal range. She just stands at that microphone and sings, letting the music move her audience. Everyone falls prey to her charms and calls for an encore.

In the tradition of classical diva Marian Anderson, Wright chooses a Negro spiritual -- “Walk With Me, Lord” -- as the final song. God is already walking with this jazz woman and opening doors of opportunity for her to sing and audiences to be blessed with her songs.

The Blind Boys of Alabama seem hardly octogenerians as they revved up “the spirit” and brought the house down -- again. This same thing has been happening at their performances since they started singing at the Alabama School for the Blind in 1939. Even after more than seven decades, they remain at the top of the gospel game. Thousands of fans -- some religious, some not -- were moved by this ensemble that guarantees satisfaction.

“Aren’t they amazing?” Sid Kalcheim of Los Angeles asked no one in particular because everyone, like him, were on their feet, singing, shouting and dancing with the Blind Boys.

One lady remarked, “They give me goosebumps.” Joscelyn McCauley of Los Angeles got lost in the gospel music, oblivious to photographers snapping her joyful face and manner as the Baptist-reared woman let the Alabama men take her “back home.”

Equally riveting in different ways were Hiroshima, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez’s salsa orchestra, Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury, the sensuous ballads of Boz Scaggs and Scaggs’ protege Monet’s fine-wine rendition of Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Jarreau’s consistently exciting vocal gymnastics and the bebop/modern/postbop wizardry of bassist Dave Holland and Roy Haynes.

These stylistically diverse artists created a palate of the rich rhythms and vibrant colors comprising the art form called jazz.

Besides Ozomatli, the most-out-of-place groups were the Fanfare Ciocarlia from Rumania and the misnamed “New Orleans” Klezmer All-Stars. Jazz veteran John Hunnewell aptly described these two groups when he disdainfully and accurately called them “weapons of music destruction.”

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