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A Bit of Pop, a Touch of Blues--and Heavy on the Jazz


Toss a few straight-ahead jazz groups into a mix with a blues singer or two, add a couple of pop acts and stir in a strong seasoning of Latin music, and the result is a colorful, outdoor party called the 19th Playboy Jazz Festival. The annual event, which moves into the Hollywood Bowl Saturday and Sunday for yet another sold-out two days (although there are still a few partially obstructed view seats available), is a classic example of musical genre-mixing.

"We try to program a bit of something for everybody," says festival President Richard Rosenzweig, "because we recognize that Los Angeles is a city with a lot of different tastes in music."

"Different tastes" pretty much sums up the program schedule, which ranges from straight-ahead performers Nicholas Payton, Roy Haynes and Joe Henderson to contemporary jazz acts Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson, pop and blues performers Etta James, Chaka Khan and John Lee Hooker, and Latin acts Tito Puente and Los Van Van. Holding it all together is Bill Cosby, who returns for his 17th year as master of ceremonies in his first public appearance in Los Angeles since the January shooting death of his son, Ennis.

"Different tastes" also means that--although there's a little something for everybody--you can't please all the people all the time. And mainstream jazz fans, perhaps predictably, will not be delighted by a program so peppered with other musical forms. So what are the highlights of this extremely mixed bag of programming? Here's a handy user's guide.

Start out with the Latin music, since virtually everyone should be pleased by the festival's inclusion of an unusually strong contingent of solid Latin performers.

The most unusual group in the category is Los Van Van, a near-legendary Cuban ensemble which--in traditional Cuban fashion--mixes dance music with Caribbean rhythms and a strongly pulsating dance beat.

"We play 'songo,' " says Juan Formell, bassist and bandleader of the nearly three-decades-old, 14-piece band. "It is a music which is based on the tradition Cuban 'son,' but which we play with a much larger instrumentation and with a very contemporary sound."

Although Los Van Van, by Formell's admission, is not as jazz-oriented as the superb Cuban band Irakere, it nonetheless includes some first-rate improvising performers among its instrumentalists. Between the hot rhythms and the driving solos, one can anticipate that Los Van Van's Saturday-evening set may well generate one of the festival's more impressive conga lines.

Among the other Latin jazz performers, South American tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri--best known for his music for the 1972 film "Last Tango in Paris"--makes his first Southland appearance in years, riding the crest of a new album in a Saturday-afternoon performance. Tito Puente, the undisputed king of Latin music, performs with singer India on Sunday.

But the group that should not be missed by Latin jazz fans is trumpeter Roy Hargrove's Latin jazz band, Crisol, appearing Sunday, with driving Latin rhythms and a first-rate lineup of players spotlighting tenor saxophonist David Sanchez and the superb Cuban pianist/composer (and leader of Irakere) Jesus "Chucho" Valdes.

What about the mainstream jazz acts?

Not a bad selection, even without the presence of a headliner such as a Sonny Rollins or a Wynton Marsalis. Leading the parade is Joe Henderson, performing Saturday, who arrives with a big band--a bit too far beyond the release of his big band album in October. But the quality of Henderson's playing places him in the top rank of jazz tenor saxophonists. And, even in the relatively confined arena of a large group, he can still be expected to have something to say--especially since this is his first festival appearance as leader of his own band. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the Roy Haynes group also perform on Saturday, making that program the festival's strongest straight-ahead jazz day.

On Sunday afternoon, Cosby's "Cos of Good Music III" once again assembles an intriguing lineup--this time including trumpeter Nat Adderley, pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Billy Drummond and Sanchez. "The Meeting" features Southland jazz stars Patrice Rushen on keyboards and Ernie Watts on saxophones, and the Count Basie Orchestra (conducted by Grover Mitchell) will provide some swinging nostalgia.

Contemporary jazz and smooth jazz fans will have to stick around for a while, since the big record-selling acts are mostly positioned in the late-night star positions (which makes it very convenient for the mainstream jazz fans who want to miss the traffic--assuming they're in unblocked parking). But Grover Washington Jr., closing the Saturday show, is always interesting, and George Benson, closing Sunday's show, is still capable--when he elects to do so--of being a first-rate jazz guitarist.

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