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Benson Inspires Magic Moments : Playboy Jazz Fest Ends On Some High Notes

June 17, 1986|LEONARD FEATHER

There were two magic moments Sunday evening at the Playboy Jazz Festival. Not that the 10 1/2-hour Hollywood Bowl marathon had been short on special pleasures: The general musical level was several notches higher than Saturday's. But when George Benson added his guitar to an already bristling Herbie Hancock group, teaming with Branford Marsalis on tenor sax for a cooking blues riff, everything fell into place.

For all his commercial success, Benson remains an unregenerate giant of jazz guitar. His two solos on this number--the second of which he scatted on in unison--inspired the entire Hancock unit to new heights.

The second moment occurred when Benson went into the opening vamp of "On Broadway." His performance was less spectacular, but the crowd reaction was phenomenal. The 17,500-plus voices rose in a roar.

Benson was the first of several guitarists who dominated the evening. B.B. King, the ultimate blues alley cat, was in rare form, and generously left space for his guitarist Leon Warren. At the end of King's set, Stevie Ray Vaughan came on stage, presumably to show how much he had learned from the Memphis pioneer. It was a trifle anti-climactic and the audience began leaving in droves.

The day had started on a promising note when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar introduced Terra Nova, a vocal quartet that had won a talent search. Singing a cappella, the two men and two women blended like old pros in versions of "Stolen Moments," "Round Midnight" and a wordless piece written by one of the members, Randy Crenshaw.

The L.A. Jazz Legends, an ad-hoc septet of seasoned swingers, took off on a set of standards. Red Holloway's alto sax soared through a hellbent bebop line, and pianist Jimmy Rowles, after playing Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low," tastefully inserted a passage from Benny Goodman's closing theme, "Goodbye," as a kicker.

The Capp/Pierce Juggernaut stayed mainly in a Basie groove, articulating each phrase as if it had originated them. Marshal Royal's "This Is All I Ask" stood out among a double handful of first-rate solos. Featured with the band were the dancer Honi Coles, faster on his feet than any other octogenarian around, and the commanding vocalist Ernie Andrews, whose version of "Parker's Mood" incorporated impressions of early blues singers.

Nina Simone began typically as she variously insulted, condescended to and courted the audience. After telling them repeatedly to be quiet, threatening to play a Bach fugue ("I'm a classical pianist, you know") and singing a calypso, the title of which she changed to "Run, Nina," there was a song entitled "Just a Stupid Dog" in which she reeled off the names of various record companies that have allegedly done her wrong. Simone also tried to coax her listeners into a sing-along in French, on which there were few takers.

Kenny G and his fusion band were accorded a tremendous reception, with the leader playing saxophones. Ironically, the alto sax of Mary Fettig, a guest soloist with singer Flora Purim in a Brazilian set by the group Azymuth, had more to say during her two solos, in terms of harmonic and melodic ideas, than Kenny G in his entire set, but she attracted little attention.

Maynard Ferguson, whose band these days is only 11 strong including himself, alternated between funk and straight jazz. The medley of 1940s jazz tunes under the heading "Bebop Buffet" came off reasonably well, with fine trombone by Alex Iles. The leader continues to put a strain on his blood vessels with his stratospheric trumpet.

For the adventurous-minded there was tenor saxophonist David Murray, whose themes, whether self-written or by his pianist John Hicks, were energetic and effective, though the blowing placed unfair demands on the instrument's normal limits of range and tone. The references in the program notes to Murray's alleged influences (among them such warm-toned pioneers as Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins) were mystifying.

Murray has done his best work with the World Saxophone Quartet; in Sunday's setting, with Hicks, the excellent drummer Ed Blackwell and a dexterous bassist, Ray Drummond, his performance was uneven and, given the standard nature of the rhythm section, not all that avant garde.

The festival succeeded in pleasing most of the people much of the time. Its main problem still is the difficulty of maintaining musical quality while catering to customers who seek excitement, noise and energy. It's not a hazard that is likely to be overcome in the foreseeable future.

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