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WEEKEND REVIEWS : Jazz : Something for Everyone at Playboy Fest

June 19, 1995|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Playboy Jazz Festival spread the big musical tent at the sold-out Hollywood Bowl Saturday, presenting everything from a 90-year-old trumpeter playing New Orleans-style traditional sounds to a jazz-meets-hip-hop ensemble with a rapper and a deejay. But while the festival's inclusive vision provided something for everyone, it offered few musical highlights as compared to years past in a program that floundered from lack of focus.

Odd band out was the closer, L.A.-based roots rockers Los Lobos. The group's blend of blues, zydeco, Tex-Mex party music and world-beat rhythms, on paper anyway, seemed a logical choice for Playboy's wide musical embrace. But despite a strong set with some interesting twists added to its established material, Los Lobos was unable to maintain the crowd after singer Al Jarreau's electrifying performance.

Jarreau, though varying little from his concert appearances of the last few years, still managed to enthrall the assembled with his instrumental approach to vocals. He was at his best as a human percussion machine, scatting out bass parts or setting a groove with rhythmic bursts of breath that meshed perfectly with his five-piece backing band. His voice was particularly agile on Chick Corea's "Spain," and there were echoes of Johnny Hartman when he struck low tones on the ballad "Can't Get You Out of My Heart."

The segue from Jarreau to Los Lobos wasn't the only one to fall flat. The day's opener, a rousing set from the big band Diva, gave way to soft, contemporary sounds from sax man Boney James.

Individually, saxophonist Benny Carter and trumpeter Doc Cheatham made fine statements with a backing ensemble that included pianist Roger Kellaway, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Sherman Ferguson. Carter's easy way with a melody was a model of musical decorum as he slid easily through themes, framing each note with varying tonal qualities. Cheatham showed amazing strength, reducing his sound to its finest essence, while singing with gruff style and grace.

However, the much-anticipated teaming of the two jazz legends was interrupted mid-way through their first tune together as the revolving stage turned to reveal vocalist Ernestine Anderson and her band.

Prior to Carter and Cheatham, trumpeter Donald Byrd attempted to bridge the gap between jazz and hip-hop as he mixed straight be-bop tunes with numbers that included a rapper (Malik/Mad Lyrics) and beats churned out by a deejay manipulating turntables. Byrd's horn, though played unimpressively, fit easily into both formats.

The day's most rewarding set came from composer-pianist Horace Silver and his Silver/Brass Ensemble, with featured sax soloist Rickey Woodard. Woodard, once a member of the Ray Charles Orchestra, put tough tenor tones to Silver's "Red Beans and Rice" and "Song for My Father." The pianist's pithy, rhythmic style came as a reminder that it doesn't have to be loud to be funky.

Appearances from flutist Herbie Mann--with saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman and keyboardist Les McCann--and pianist Joe Sample's trio were throwbacks to the '70s, when both these leaders were experimenting with more commercial sounds.

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