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Pop goes the jazz fest

Much of the compelling sound filling the Bowl for the Playboy festival comes from international, blues and ballad players.

June 18, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

When Hugh Hefner decided to mark Playboy magazine's fifth anniversary in 1959 with a midsummer event in Chicago that was the first indoor American jazz festival, picking the lineup must have been a piece of cake.

It was, after all, a time in which jazz -- even the startling new sound of bebop -- was very much a part of the American popular music mainstream. So it was no surprise that the all-star participants included Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong.

The added presence of singer Bobby Darin represented a nod in the pop direction, unknowingly signaling a programming choice that would become a blueprint for future festivals.

When Playboy began staging the festival at the Hollywood Bowl 20 years later, the program featured an equally iconic assemblage: Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman, among others.

In the nearly three decades since, continually sold-out programs have drawn nearly three-quarters of a million listeners to hear more than 300 hours of jazz performed by hundreds of musicians.

On Saturday, 18,000 fans showed up for opening day of the 29th annual Playboy Jazz Festival. But despite its pleasures, the lineup could hardly be described as iconic. Like pop music, jazz has changed as musical styles, audience interest and media delivery systems have fragmented.

The marquee artists who in the past might have been featured at the festival (think Diana Krall, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter) were nowhere to be seen. Most have sufficient clout to headline the Bowl on their own. (Case in point: Krall performs there Aug. 17 and 18.)

The result was a presentation that might more accurately have been described simply as the Playboy Music Festival -- a day in which most of the highlights were provided by international stars (Angelique Kidjo, Issac Delgado), a blues artist (Buddy Guy), a balladeer (trumpeter Chris Botti) and a nostalgia act (the Count Basie Orchestra).

Even with the afternoon's string of strong jazz acts -- saxophonist James Carter, emcee Bill Cosby's Cos of Good Music band, the Randy Brecker-Bill Evans Soulbop Band -- pop-oriented dilution diminished the effect of some otherwise impressive music.

Alto saxophonist Phil Woods and trumpeter Brian Lynch, ably supported by pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, finally turned the musical corner with a set of convincing journeys into contemporized bebop.

And when Benin's Kidjo arrived, with her stirring vocals, enthusiastic dancing and genuine audience interaction, the feeling of musical authenticity continued to fill the venue. Her performance didn't have a lot to do with jazz but plenty to do with creative believability.

The same, in a very different stylistic manner, can be said for Cuban expatriate Delgado, who brought the crowd into the aisles with his mixture of soul-stirring salsa and timba with an odd foray into early rock 'n' roll.

Botti was best when his warm-toned playing recalled the ballad style of Miles Davis, less intriguing when he drifted toward smooth jazz and back-beat funk.

It was guitarist Guy's closing set that provided the most compelling moments.

Oddly, it was this blues man's powerful awareness of rhythmic space and time, his dramatic pacing and his improvisational invention that most recalled those iconic figures who were there at the start of the Playboy Jazz Festivals.

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