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A jazz festival still worthy of the name

Playboy keeps the faith with a kaleidoscopic array of talent.

June 09, 2005|Don Heckman

No one ever said it was easy to program a jazz festival. But it used to be a lot less complicated than it is now. In the 1950s and '60s, putting together an event like this weekend's Playboy Jazz Festival meant picking from a pool of talent that included Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Charles Mingus.

Today there are far fewer big names who reach a similar level of excellence. But there's another way to look at jazz today: as a time of opportunity rather than absence, a time in which the tent has been opened to more possibilities.

This year's Playboy festival reflects that view with a two-day program of music typifying the Southland's embrace of jazz in its far-reaching manifestations. Producer Darlene Chan has started by structuring her schedule upon a solid mainstream jazz foundation. Saturday's bill includes a tribute to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jon Faddis, as well the Joey DeFrancesco/Kenny Burrell Quartet in a tribute to organist Jimmy Smith. Beyond that base, the jazz view widens via the gifted saxophonist Joshua Redman with his adventurous Elastic Band, and the crisp crossover stylings of the Ramsey Lewis Trio and drummer Stix Hooper's band, Viewpoint.

On Sunday, straight-ahead jazz is equally prominent. The Saxophone Summit features three of the instrument's most prominent practitioners -- Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Redman. Other variations within the mainstream arena will be offered by the Heath Brothers (without the bass playing of brother Percy Heath, who died in April), Chico Hamilton's Euphoria, the vibes of Roy Ayers and Gordon Goodwin's dynamic Big Phat Band.

The blues have been intrinsic to jazz since the beginning, and they are present at the festival in two forms. Saturday features the storytelling delights and colorful acoustic guitar of Keb' Mo'. Sunday showcases the New Orleans jive, blues and boogie of Dr. John.

The festival programming expands further with a pair of Latin jazz artists. The bassist/bandleader Israel "Cachao" Lopez, one of the legendary figures of Cuban music, performs with his orchestra on Saturday. And on Sunday, Puerto Rican singer Gilberto Santa Rosa makes his Playboy festival debut.

Pop and smooth jazz artists add melodic spice to the festival via the appearances of Boney James and Norman Brown's Summer Storm (with Peabo Bryson, Brenda Russell and Everette Harp) on Saturday and young singer Ledisi and George Benson on Sunday.

Topping off the weekend's kaleidoscopic diversity, the Jazz Tap Ensemble and Caravan Project recall the linkage between jazz and tap dancing on Saturday. And the 40-plus members of daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra arrive on Sunday with their blend of classical, jazz, world and hip-hop music, dance and rap.

Give credit to the Playboy organization and the festival producers for resisting the temptation to change the title -- as so many festivals have done -- from a "jazz festival" to the more neutral "music festival." By doing so, they have sustained the historical openness of jazz, honoring the music's capacity to expand, grow and evolve.

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-- Don Heckman

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