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Jazz Review

Top-Quality Acts Get Festival Off to a Crowd-Pleasing Start

May 31, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Early June gloom, with its cloudy skies and cool breezes, brought an air of uncertainty to the opening hours of Playboy Jazz in Central Park on Saturday, the highlight event of MindSpring's Old Pasadena Summer Fest. Would it rain? Would it be too chilly for the crowds to come out? Would the absence of sunshine minimize the warm, partygoing atmosphere that prevails at this free event?

All questions were quickly answered when the clouds drifted away, the sun beamed, the temperature rose and the all-day jazz festival once again overflowed with enthusiastic music fans. By the close of Saturday's program, the well-produced, well-managed event--which included, in addition to jazz, amusement rides, a sports zone, children's areas, an arts and crafts fair and dozens of food stands--had made an impressive step toward reaching the 70,000-to-75,000 three-day total that has become the Summer Fest's baseline attendance figure.

The Playboy Jazz in Central Park talent lineup continued to reflect the eclectic approach that producer Darlene Chan has always brought to the event. The opening acts, for example, ranged from Spotlight Award winners Robert Elfman and Jennifer Quan to blues singer-guitarist Kris Wiley and the Latin rhythms of pianist-vibraphonist Fred Ramirez.

The appearance of saxophonist Sapphron Obois was a bit more unexpected. Smooth jazz has generally played a prominent role in the festival's programming, but the little-known Obois--one of the rare female horn players in the contemporary field--was a real find. Playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section, she nonetheless came up with a bravura performance, bringing heat, drive and an edgy adventurousness to virtually everything she played.

Obois' energetic outing set the stage for Saturday's most exciting performers, the San Francisco-based musical commune Mingus Amungus. As the name suggests, the seven-piece ensemble's music begins from a foundation of Charles Mingus music. The group underscored that connection by kicking off its program with a visceral rendering of the bass master's "Better Git It in Your Soul." Far more than a revival group, however, Mingus Amungus added performances by its resident dancers and topped off the appearance with a remarkably effective blending of jazz and hip-hop, featuring rap artist Martin Reynolds. In their own still relatively unheralded fashion, the musicians are effectively placing jazz in a holistic connection with the many other elements coursing through the late 20th century music scene. And they clearly deserve greater attention.

Saturday's jazz festival closed with a characteristically upbeat set from guitarist Grant Geissman. Capable of touching a wide variety of styles, from blues to straight-ahead material to smooth jazz, he turned up for this date with a four-piece horn section to supplement his regular quartet. The results were first-rate, showcasing Geissman's articulate playing and bringing the day to a crowd-pleasing climax.

*

* Playboy Jazz in Central Park, Pasadena (Fair Oaks Avenue at Del Mar Boulevard) continues today with performances by Everette Harp, the Bobby Matos Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, Lois McMorris, the Elliot Caine Sextet, Donny Williams and the Swingin' Deacons. 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Free. (626) 797-6803.

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