It began at 2:25 p.m. Saturday, five minutes ahead of schedule, at the Hollywood Bowl. In spirit, though, the 12th annual Playboy Jazz Festival started in Flagstaff, with the Northern Arizona University Jazz Ensemble, and ended in Havana, with Poncho Sanchez and Tito Puente pumping out old-timey mambo-style dance music.
In the sense that none of the nine acts offered anything offensive or out of place, and that moments of inspiration marked at least some parts of every set, this was among the most felicitously planned in the festival's slightly checkered history.
The maintenance of that delicate balance between the popular and the artistic, the visceral and the cerebral, was kept with very few compromises. True, there was no single high point to carry into memory. The audience did not come fully alive until 6:15 p.m., during a Tommy Newsom suite played by the Doc Severinsen Orchestra, when Bill Henderson spontaneously joined the action and sang the blues, flanked by Severinsen and Snooky Young in a "talking trumpets" routine.
Later, Joe Williams, waving a handkerchief during a blues vocal, soon had thousands of handkerchiefs blowing in the breeze. The Williams set promised a surprise that failed to materialize. With Jay McShann billed as an added attraction, it was natural to expect an unprecedented blues duet, but McShann stayed at the piano and, even when Williams sang a song McShann wrote and popularized, "Confessin' the Blues," the Kansas City veteran never raised his voice.
The most adventurous group presented was a quartet composed of pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Jack De Johnette, bassist Dave Holland and guitarist Pat Metheny. With routines that veered wildly between total freedom and basic three-part chords, and with Holland and Metheny both alternating between acoustic and electric instruments, this was a provocative set, chaotic when it started but more accessible as it went through a series of unannounced originals.
The opening performance by the Arizona band offered inspiring new evidence of the team spirit and occasional solo accomplishments of which these college groups are capable. Pianist Jim O'Meally brought warmth and conviction to "Spirit of Trane." For a finale, the whole band roared decisively through Mat Catingup's witty piece, "Blues and the Abscessed Tooth."
The "Tonight Show" ensemble, surely the most seen but least heard band in America, earned a rare chance to stretch out, with first-class arrangements by Newsom (whose alto sax shared honors with Pete Christlieb's tenor) and Bill Holman's new view of "Honeysuckle Rose."
The Tony Williams Quintet, an energetic hard bop group, was noteworthy for the promise shown by a fast-rising trumpeter, Wallace Roney, and by the potent, driving piano of Mulgrew Miller. Williams, though magnificent as an ensemble drummer, insisted on starting almost every number with a long solo; for diversion during these stretches you could always catch up on a few features in the handsome 104-page souvenir program.
The Chick Corea Trio, running the gamut from his own originals to Coltrane and Bud Powell and Monk, represented contemporary acoustic music flawlessly, with John Patitucci in his ever-more incredibly nimble form, and drummer Dave Weckl superbly supportive.
Pianist Eliane Elias blended determination and delicacy in two of her own works from the "Cross Currents" album. Surprisingly, she seemed less at ease interpreting the works of Antonio Carlos Jobim from her native Brazil. "Waters of March" was just a hair too aggressive and "Desafinado" too fast, with Peter Erskine's drumming slightly overbearing.
Fellow musicians, notably Wynton Marsalis, have expressed the belief that Miles Davis has betrayed the achievements of his definitive years. Possibly Marsalis is wise beyond his years and Miles is years beyond his wisdom. Saturday evening he offered several passages of genuine beauty, mostly muted, but much of what he accomplishes today is limited by the rhythmic and harmonic monotony of the settings.
Davis has found a new way to avoid talking to his audiences: When someone in the band is soloing, he holds up a placard bearing the soloist's first name. Kenny Garrett's alto sax tended toward longer phrases than Davis, but he too was given to repetition and choppy, staccato sounds.
There was a shock for the 17,951 attendees when emcee Bill Cosby announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Gosa." Since the popular disc jockey died last year, this was a chilling moment, assuaged a little when Cosby added the names of Sammy Davis Jr., Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan to clarify his oddly worded point (but he neglected to include a death as tragic as any, that of 32-year-old Emily Remler).