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At This Year's Festival, Women Lead the Way


Associating "women" with the word "Playboy" isn't exactly shocking, but the 24th installment of the Playboy Jazz Festival could easily be subtitled "The Year of the Women."

Female jazz singers have always been present at the festival; still, this year's event, which takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, has some special qualities for fans of the distaff side of jazz vocalizing.

The distinctive musical wares of free-flying scat and ballad singer Nnenna Freelon; eclectic artist Patti Austin (doing an Ella Fitzgerald tribute with the Count Basie Orchestra); the blues-based Etta James; and swing specialist Lavay Smith will be on display.

That's a big improvement over last year, when the jazz singing banner was turned over to rhythm & blues shouter Toshi Reagon, lounge revivalist Keely Smith, pop jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson and New Orleans hot-jazz belter Banu Gibson.

Why the change? One reason may well be the successes of Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Cassandra Wilson and others, reviving the female jazz singing genre with an intensity not seen since the years of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae.

When any kind of jazz CD sales peak over the 1-million-and-beyond mark, as Krall's have, it attracts attention within the bottom-line-oriented record business. So it's not surprising that Festival Productions programmer Darlene Chan has raised the bar of vocal music quality significantly higher for this year's concerts.

Faced with the dilemma of how to fill nearly 18,000 seats for the two consecutive days of the festival, Chan can't completely avoid commercial factors when she makes her choices.

"There are a lot of things I have to take into account," she says. "Existing tours--who can't be available because they're in Europe, and so forth. The ego demands of some artists and managers, who insist that we put them into a particular part of the schedule."

But Chan's primary consideration has always been to find balance between performers whose creative qualities demand they be present, and this year's contingent of female vocal artists reaches across the spectrum of tastes.

The elegant Freelon has been critically praised since her first album was released a decade ago. Five Grammy Award nominations later, she is consistently listed among the top female jazz vocal artists. Her latest album, "Tales of Wonder," released on Tuesday, is devoted to songs by singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.

Austin, who has been singing professionally since age 4, is a defining example of musical versatility. As an A-list studio artist, she has sung backup for Roberta Flack and Angela Bofill, hit the top of the pop charts via duets with James Ingram ("Baby Come to Me") and covered jazz from smooth to straight ahead. Her latest project is "For Ella," a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, released on May 21, and her festival performance will include much of the material from the new CD, performed with the Count Basie Orchestra.

"Nobody knows that I can really do this kind of music," says Austin. "So this is a different expectation that I have to deal with, and there's some doubt out there, over whether I can do it.... Especially from those who love Ella, who give me that look that says, 'All right, baby, don't mess up my mama's music.' "

James, whose inimitable voice became familiar to millions via her soulful rendering of "At Last" in a Jaguar commercial, has been primarily known as a blues singer since "Dance With Me Henry" topped the R&B charts in 1955. But her 1994 Grammy Award-winning performance in the best jazz vocal category for the album "Mystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday)" affirmed her capacity to smoothly reveal the linkages between jazz and the blues.

The straightforward James insists, however, upon describing her jazz skills in modest terms. "I always feel a little strange when they put me on a jazz show," she says. "When I was younger, we had all those hip jazz singers--Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae--and I always think of jazz singers as being so cool. But I guess I've got my own blues cool, even if I don't have that scooby-doo cool like they do."

Swing's the thing with Lavay Smith and her Bay Area band, the colorfully titled Red Hot Skillet Lickers. But it would be a mistake to characterize either Smith or her players as swing revivalists. Working with mostly veteran musicians, she--in tandem with the group's co-founder, pianist Chris Seibert--is willing to move into bebop and beyond if she finds tunes that meet her requisite of danceability.

Reflecting the feelings of all four of the women appearing at this weekend's festival, Smith says: "I like to think that no matter what I'm doing, I'm doing it in a classic jazz kind of way."

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