It’s one of Southern California’s great jazz traditions. Whatever’s going on in the world, the Playboy Jazz Festival, in all its glorious global, grooving eclecticism, is always there as the gateway to a summer of jazz-filled joy. As it kicked off its incredible 5th decade, the Saturday slate (June 8) delivered all the world class goodies and happy surprises longtime attendees have come to expect.
Sometimes it was a nostalgic funk dance party, like with Kool & The Gang celebrating their 50th year anniversary with their first festival appearance, closing the night with an extended singalong “Celebration” of always welcome classics (with “Jungle Boogie” particularly off the chain!) that truly embody the meaning of “Hollywood Swinging.” At other junctures, the performers connected us meaningfully with recently departed legends, first with an all-star crew of jazz/funk greats (Patrice Rushen, Ernie Watts, Doc Powell, Alphonso Johnson, Teri Lyne Carrington) paying buoyant homage to influential jazz fusion/pop/funk/soul drummer Ndugu Chancler via everything from “Let It Whip” (a Chancler co-write) and “Billie Jean” to George Duke’s trippy, otherworldly classic “Reach For It.”
Blending wild funk and tear-inducing tenderness, master percussionist (and pretty crackling guitarist as well) Sheila E took a moment during her frenetic, funk and Latin sizzle infused set to wish a happy birthday in heaven to her mentor Prince via a tender twist on “Purple Rain” and a spirited romp through “Baby I’m a Star.” She balanced that party energy with moments of solemn social consciousness, opening with a scorching rendition of the National Anthem (Jimi Hendrix was no doubt smiling just a bit) and preceding her infectious, white hot classic “The Glamorous Life” with an invocation to choose love over hate.
I tend to feel bad for the purists of any specific kind of jazz who think the term only applies to the sub-style they like. Playboy is one of those grand events that shows us just how broad the term is. On this sweltering afternoon, it was the intensely funky sister power of the all-female urban jazz collective Jazz in Pink, led by versatile (and highly mobile) keyboardist Gail Jhonson and featuring heavens-reaching violinist Karen Briggs and dreamy harpist Mariea Antoinette – rolling through everything from “Pusherman” to the autobiographical “I’m Every Woman.” It was also multi-instrumentalist (sax, keys, vocoder) Terrace Martin’s experimental old school soul jazz/electronic fusion. Jazz was the gleefully swinging, deeply soulful bridge from past to present presented by saxophonist Benny Golson’s 90th birthday quartet.
Jazz this day was also the always inventive trumpeter and film composer Terence Blanchard creating a distorted otherworldly brass section via his horn in collaboration with the E-Collective, balancing their fiery progressive fusion with the more accessible blues/gospel/funk vocals of Quiana Lynell. And jazz was a burning, crazily danceable rollercoaster ride to Africa for legendary Beninise-American vocal giant Angelique Kidjo’s exuberant celebration of her home continent and the Latin magic of Celia Cruz (as per her new tribute album Celia). Dressed to convey the eye (and ear) of the tigress, she engaged the crowd with wild chanting choruses and shouts and more bona fide audience participation than any act of the day. Another highlight was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, whose boisterous and plucky, urbane yet delightfully dusty Americana inspired jazz fusion was driven by Fleck’s creative banjo sojourns and solos and the incredibly diverse musings of harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy.
What is jazz? It’s all those amazingly diverse moments and memories that spin by as quickly as the stage turns between acts – and whatever came next on Sunday when Boz Scaggs, Maceo Parker, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Family Stone held court.
Photo Credit: Mathew Imaging