"Who's got some extra suntan oil, man?" asked singer and unflappably cool customer Kurt Elling from the stage Saturday at the 32nd annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Marking his first appearance at the festival, the sharply dressed Elling had just finished a spry cover of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out," and the temperatures were climbing.
"You look good in the light of day -- most of you," he added with a smirk.
Though the persistent sun may have clashed with the ever-chatty Elling's generally nocturnal aesthetic, it's all part of the package at Playboy, an L.A. tradition that's as much a rite of early summer as the purple haze of jacaranda blossoms.
And while the festival has maintained a large following with a big-tent approach to jazz, the first day of this year's installment also offered a bit of a youth movement. Something of a YouTube sensation for a wild cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was an early highlight with instrumentals that touched on flamenco and a sort of pop-classical guitar style, providing a breezy backdrop for the coolers and picnic baskets still winding through the Hollywood Bowl grounds.
Also no strangers to viral video world, the a cappella group Naturally 7 later appeared with their signature cover of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Featuring a nice bit of subway-ready theater with each vocalist pantomiming live instruments as they replicated the sound of bass, drums, strings and -- most impressively -- electric guitar, the group had fans jumping with a mix of hip-hop, soul and funk delivered with a near-gospel fervor.
But this is still a jazz festival, after all, and the early part of the day belonged to the New Orleans-based Trombone Shorty. Often spoken of as a near-mythic figure in his appearances on HBO's "Treme," the bandleader also known as Troy Andrews did not disappoint, even as he showed he could opt for a name change if he really wanted.
Midway through a set of raucous Crescent City jazz and R&B, Andrews switched to trumpet for a searing solo that cut through the middle of the classic "St. James Infirmary," which had hankies twirling excitedly in the air as Andrews stretched a single note over the crowd and seemingly toward infinity.
Others weren't so successful in overcoming the Bowl's festive atmosphere. Electric bass titan Marcus Miller teamed with fiery young trumpeter Christian Scott to revisit the sound of Miles Davis' synthesizer-heavy 1986 album "Tutu," which was co-produced by Miller. Though Scott was an ideal choice to fill Davis' muted trumpet and could have easily performed the festival with his own band on the heels of an impressive new album, this set's midtempo funk workouts and dated keyboard tones often failed to connect, even during a reverent if straightforward cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature."
Opening his set with a birthday cake presented by Lakers great (and instant crowd favorite) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chick Corea and his all-acoustic Freedom Band also had trouble translating. Though saxophonist Kenny Garrett and bassist Christian McBride were often game with a few remarkable solos to complement Corea's piano, the crowd was ready for more party-ready fare as night fell.
Which is exactly what the Pete Escovedo Orchestra delivered. Performing at Playboy for the second straight year, the group led by the 74-year-old bandleader and a battery of Latin jazz percussion had conga lines circling the Bowl boxes midway through its set. Longtime host Bill Cosby even got into the act, ambling onstage to trade beats with the hard-hitting Sheila E., who finally froze the comic with a thunderous drum solo that segued into a few lyrics from her hit "Glamorous Life."
"This is a jazz show," the elder Escovedo said playfully. His daughter grinned and started again, adding an extra swing through a few verses as the crowd roared, not caring in the least what the day's music was called. They knew they were in the right place.