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The show is the star

Flawlessly produced and offering a lineup of top pros, the Playboy festival shines without marquee names.

June 13, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Three essential elements in producing a big music festival are picking the right acts, planning the details and pacing the program. And on Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, the 27th Playboy Jazz Festival got every one right.

Start with the picks. It's no revelation to point out that jazz -- like virtually every other area of the music world -- isn't exactly overflowing with the sort of icon-status performers who transformed some of the earliest Playboy Jazz Festivals into virtual all-star classics. (Reminiscing backstage at midafternoon, executive producer and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner recalled that his "one regret about the first festival was that it came too late to include Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday in the lineup." Fortunately, plenty of other major names were available at that time.)

This year, however, festival producer Darlene Chan compensated for the absence of such larger-than-life figures as the late greats Count Basie, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington by picking a collection of artists colorful and diverse enough to reflect the social and cultural complexities of Los Angeles: including the irrepressible blues of Keb' Mo', the hard-driving brilliance of Joshua Redman's Elastic Band, the strutting pop jazz of Boney James and the body-moving Latin rhythms of Israel "Cachao" Lopez and the Cineson All-Stars.

Typically, the planning details also were executed flawlessly. The sound, the lighting and the superb video-projection screens worked perfectly, the acts swiveled onstage, one after the other, on a rotating turntable, and everything happened on schedule. The pacing -- the order in which the acts appeared -- was similarly thoughtful, sequenced to follow the cyclic rhythms of a 10-hour afternoon and evening program.

The festival, with its free-floating outdoor-party atmosphere, tends to move through three fairly distinct segments. First, there's the kick-back-in-the sun, dig-the-music, drink-some-wine afternoon sequence.

On this Saturday, it began with an appearance by the talented high school players of the Los Angeles Multi-School Jazz Band (directed by Reggie Andrews), followed by the spirited dancing of Lynn Dally's Jazz Tap Ensemble and the youthful members of the Caravan Project.

Next up, drummer Stix Hooper's band, Viewpoint, set the bar high for what was to follow. Paced by Hooper's dynamic percussion work, the group moved easily and smoothly from brisk mainstream jazz to more propulsive grooves. A tribute to organist Jimmy Smith by the Joey DeFrancesco/Kenny Burrell Quartet sustained the day's high-quality sounds, balancing crisply swinging up-tempo numbers with a rarity at the festival -- a pair of ballads featuring Burrell's warm, intimate guitar work.

The second segment begins in late afternoon, when the first trace of evening coolness arrives, bringing with it a desire for a little movement after hours of seated listening. And the great Cuban bassist Lopez, leading a band that featured soloing from such fine players as saxophonist Justo Almario, violinist Federico Brito, trombonist Jimmy Bosch and guest artist Paquito D'Rivera, immediately brought the crowd to its feet with a powerful collection of mambo- and salsa-drenched Latin jazz.

Redman's sparkling set, showcasing his way with unusual rhythms, followed. And Keb' Mo' triggered white handkerchief waving and dancing in the aisles with his facile shifts from down home blues to contemporary R&B. The evening's sole big jazz band set featured a tribute to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra that was performed, a bit sloppily at times, by a group of prime Southland players led by trumpeter Jon Faddis. Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater added her brightly hued interpretations to the mix.

The final, prime-time evening segment of the present day festivals always provides the most noticeable distinction from festivals of the past, with headliners from the contemporary pop jazz arena rather than icons of mainstream jazz. Saturday's bill spotlighted pianist Ramsey Lewis' quartet, saxophonist James and guitarist Norman Brown's Summer Storm 2005 with Peabo Bryson, Brenda Russell and Everette Harp. Each accomplished the task of stirring fans who were eager to experience a few climactic hours of rhythmically energetic jazz entertainment.

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