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Cirque Du Soleil
(Cirque Du Soleil)
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Patricia Barber
(Blue Note)
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Cirque Du Soleil
(Cirque Du Soleil)
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Jim Pearce
“Why I Haven't Got You”
Prairie Dog Ballet
(Oak Avenue Publishing)
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Andy Timmons Band
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(Favored Nations)
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Ralph Towner
Time Line
(ECM Records)
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Anoushka Shankar

Amos Lee
"Arms Of A Woman"
Amos Lee
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Julius Curcio
"American Pie"
Alligator Shoes
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"Come Alive"
Changing Into Me
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Feature [Issue #21]
Various: The Playboy Jazz Festival: Hef Brings The Jazz Giants
By Scott Yanow

Hugh Hefner of Playboy has always loved jazz. Those of you who buy Playboy for the articles have noticed that Playboy has occasionally featured pieces on jazz artists (Alex Haley once interviewed Miles Davis), and in the past Playboy had its own annual jazz poll. In Chicago in 1959 there was a Playboy Jazz Festival that was quite successful, but not repeated until 20 years later.

In 1979, Hefner indulged himself and put on a two-day Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl that took place on a Friday night in June and all day and night on the following Saturday. It was such a hit that the Playboy Jazz Festival has taken place every year since, but on a Saturday and Sunday. These two 8 1/2 hour concerts are rather unusual in some respects. Rather than being a jazz party, they are really a party with jazz in that the audience, sitting out in the sun all day, is far from quiet and respectful. The music is secondary to the party and it is up to each group to win the audience’s attention. The danceable bands have it much easier than the more esoteric jazz combos; but, with major effort, most groups can succeed as long as they keep a sense of humor about it all.

Another unusual aspect to the event is its eclectic lineup. While jazz is the foundation of the festival, there are also usually blues, R&B, smooth, World Music, pop, and some unclassifiable acts. A typical day features 11 groups, seven or eight of which are jazz. Due to the revolving stage, the music rarely ever stops and the musical styles sometimes shift dramatically. I remember in the past seeing Joni Mitchell followed by Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie, who did not stand a chance after Weather Report played “Birdland,” and the Modern Jazz Quartet being completely ignored after following Spyro Gyra.

Having attended every Playboy Jazz Festival (though not the 1959 version), I’ve seen some real highlights and low points. The latter includes Jaco Pastorius having a meltdown onstage, Nina Simone walking off after ten minutes due to the crowd noise, and an unbearable Maynard Ferguson disco show. On the other hand, the Playboy Jazz Festival gave fans a chance to see the Red Norvo-Tal Farlow-Red Mitchell Trio, Wynton Marsalis getting the crowd to dance in hysterical style while playing New Orleans jazz, and everyone from Wild Bill Davison and Sarah Vaughan to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. The best set of music that I’ve ever seen was by a one-time group called Sing, Sing, Sing, featuring vocalists Jon Hendricks, Bobby McFerrin, Janis Siegel, and Dianne Reeves. It was incredible and I hope was taped.

But what about the 2006 version of the Playboy Jazz Festival, which is taking place June 17-18? Emceed by Bill Cosby as usual, it will feature 22 groups that span a wide area of music. Here is a survey of who is appearing and what they have been up to lately, starting with Saturday’s lineup.

Tenor and soprano-saxophonist Branford Marsalis has had his regular quartet with pianist Joey Calderazzo for quite a few years. Marsalis, who supervises and records for the Marsalis Music label (his DVD of A Love Supreme is highly recommended) tends to play lengthy solos inspired by John Coltrane although in his own sound. His performance will definitely be burning.

  Jamie Cullum has made a strong impression on the jazz and pop music worlds with his singing. A modern-day crooner from England, Cullum’s Twentysomething put him on the map on this continent, updating jazz vocalizing to include pop music enjoyed by younger listeners along with some improvising and jazz phrasing.

In the late 1970s, the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project gave keyboardist Duke and electric bassist Clarke the opportunity to play high-powered R&B/funk. Both used the group as their gradual escape from jazz into R&B. Decades have passed and this pairing will be one of their first reunions since that era.  I would not be surprised if a new record by the group were in the near future.

Veteran tenor-saxophonist Benny Golson, the composer of “Killer Joe” and “Blues March,” is still playing at his prime a half-century after he toured the world with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. He has the knack of writing songs that are challenging for musicians to play, but featurie catchy melodies that listeners remember.  Golson, who appears briefly near the end of the film The Terminal and recorded most recently with Concord, will be featured with a quartet.

The Golden Striker Trio is an all-star group consisting of bassist Ron Carter, pianist Mulgrew Miller, and guitarist Russell Malone, that plays modern hard bop.  Their CD for Blue Note (named The Golden Striker after a John Lewis composition) is as one would expect: solid straight ahead jazz from a trio of jazz greats.  Carter loves to stretch out so there are always a lot of bass solos during his performances, but the presence of Miller and Malone should result in strong interplay between the musicians.

A few years ago, Los Angeles’ Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra recorded a classic album with the late vibraphonist Milt Jackson called Explosive. The big band, co-led by arranger-bassist John Clayton, altoist Jeff Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton, has been together over 20 years and is one of the most swinging ensembles in jazz. With guest vibraphonist Stefan Harris, they will be performing a tribute to Jackson that will feature many of John Clayton’s charts from that unique encounter.

Japanese pianist Hiromi, whose most recent recording for the Telarc label is Spiral, brings new life to the piano trio.  It will be interesting to see if she can capture the partying crowd at Playboy.  Bill Cosby usually heads a diverse group of all-stars as the “Cos Of Good Music.” This year’s version features trombonist Steve Turre, tenor-saxophonist Walter Blanding, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Dwayne Burno, drummer Ndugu Chancler, and Cosby himself on percussion. Cosby’s music is always very spontaneous bop and his conducting of the band is certainly individual.

The first day’s festivities will begin with the Los Angeles County High School For The Arts under the direction of Jason Goldman. In addition, there will be two non-jazz groups heard on Saturday. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays spirited salsa with plenty of Afro-Cuban rhythms. And Baaba Maal, one of Africa’s top singers, will perform his brand of “Afro-pop” and reggae with his group Daande Lenol (“The voice of the people”).

As Strong as Saturday looks, Sunday will be far from anti-climatic. The great pianist McCoy Tyner and his trio will be collaborating with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre in what will most likely be one of the high points. Tyner’s percussive style and powerful playing will certainly inspire the dancers, and vice versa in what should be a very colorful set.

The late saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. was a hit at Playboy on several occasions. Mister Magic’s’ soulful brand of “rhythm & jazz” will be celebrated by Groovin’ For Grover, a group featuring saxophonists Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum plus keyboardist Jeff Lorber that has been heard at several “smooth” jazz festivals in recent times. Another big name who has never been at Playboy before is Chuck Mangione. Still playing in the familiar style that made “Feels So Good” a major hit in the 1970s, Mangione is a fine flugelhornist inspired initially by Dizzy Gillespie, whose melodic playing made him a household name far beyond the jazz world.  He has not recorded in far too long.

Youth is celebrated in the booking of two groups. Pianist Eldar Djangirov, who is just 18 but has been playing professionally since before he was a teenager, is a remarkable player with impressive technique who also displays sensitivity on ballads. He records for Sony Classical while trumpeter Christian Scott, one of several young talents recently signed by Concord, is 23 and has loads of potential. Scott will be leading his own combo at Playboy in what could be a major step forward in his career.

Pianist Eddie Palmieri has performed stirring music ever since he emerged as a Latin Jazz innovator in the early 1960s. His Afro-Caribbean Jazz All-Stars will feature the avant-Latin tenor-saxophonist David Sanchez and jazz’s top violinist, the always-exciting Regina Carter. Carter was recently featured on the title cut of Palmieri’s Concord release, Listen Here, one of Palmieri’s strongest recordings in years.

New Orleans will be paid tribute to in a pair of very different sets. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been revitalized in recent times with the infusion of new blood, playing spirited versions of Dixieland and New Orleans jazz standards. In what promises to be an unusual match-up, as part of The River In Reverse Tour, Elvis Costello teams up with New Orleans R&B pianist Allen Toussaint for a program of Toussaint’s songs.

Violinist Lesa Terry will be leading the Women’s Jazz Orchestra of Los Angeles through some straight-ahead jazz and newer originals. Much further afield will be Ozomatli, a group who perform urban music and R&B, recording for Concord. Also outside of jazz but certainly stirring is the gospel music of Elder Edward Babb and the McCollough Sons Of Thunder.

During the weekend of June 17-18, the Hollywood Bowl will be transformed into Jazzland, a wondrous place where 18,000 diverse people blend together to form Los Angeles’ top annual party. Although quiet ballad vocals and piano solos will be drowned out by the audience, who are busy eating, drinking, socializing, throwing beach balls around, and engaged in other activities, it gives one the opportunity to see a wide variety of intriguing music in a brief period of time. It is a party that I never want to miss.

The Playboy Jazz Festival: Hef Brings The Jazz Giants Various

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