A relatively sedate audience was on hand for Los Angeles' summer rite of passage, the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival (June 14-15). There was no line of dancing patrons snaking around the Hollywood Bowl as in years past. Or beach balls being volleyed from box to box. But several acts did succeed in pumping up the crowd's energy level.
The first of those standout moments occurred during Saturday's sold-out, seven-hour soiree. That's when Allen Stone, making his festival debut, hit the stage in the late afternoon. While not a household name for many in the audience, the self-described "hippie with soul" soon won the crowd over with his disarming personality ("Did you bring your sunscreen? Man, I'm pale as shit.") and Marvin Gaye-influenced music. Opening with "Love," Stone and his band sailed through a finely tuned set that included "Quit Callin," "Million," "Voo Doo"and YouTube fave "Unaware." New Orleans singer/piano virtuoso Henry Butler and trumpeter/band leader Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 got the party going during the dinner hour, serving up original Butler tunes ("Dixie Walker," "Booker Time") and classics (Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues").
Jazz chanteuse Dianne Reeves took the gauntlet from there, keeping the audience mesmerized with tracks from Beautiful Life, which bowed at No. 1 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart. Those selections from her Concord debut/covers album included Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and Gaye's "I Want You." Rounding out the Saturday lineup was a tribute to late music man George Duke, who died last year. Headlined by the legendary Stanley Clarke and Al Jarreau, the segment featured an all-star band Henry Butler with trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein and a tribute to the late George Duke headlined by the legendary Stanley Clarke and Al Jarreau. An all-star band featuring keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and drummer Ndugu Chancler, among others, accompanied Clarke, Jarreau and Reeves on songs representing Duke's diverse range, including "Brazilian Love Affair," "Sweet Baby," "Someday" and "Reach For It."
"George was a real soldier for the arts," Clarke told Billboard.com before the tribute. "He walked through many different genres from R&B and pop to jazz. His music will always live as long as this planet is spinning." Added Reeves, who was a Duke cousin, "George is greatly missed. He gave me my license to just be all the things that you can be."
Sunday's lineup of crowd-wowing performances began with Jon Batiste–who attacks the piano like a young Jerry Lee Lewis—and his band Stay Human, who jumpstarted the audience with jubilant renditions of Batiste's own "People in the World" and such standards as "Sunny Side of the Street." And festival veteran George Benson and Earl Klugh turned up the heat during their late-night performance. Both jazz guitarists showed they've lost none of their plucking prowess with Benson effortlessly shifting the Bowl into full-on party mode with a memorable string of hits from "Give Me the Night" and "Love Ballad" to "Turn Your Love Around" and "On Broadway."
But it was Fantasia who truly brought down the house. Also marking her first time as a festival performer, she strutted, sashayed, preached and belted her way through an invigorating set that had folks on their feet throughout her 50-minute set. Surprise guest Kelly Rowland joined Fantasia on "Without Me"; additional selections included "Free Yourself," the classic "Summertime," "Side Effects of You" and a no-holds-barred rendering of "Lose to Win." At one point, Fantasia dove into an ‘80s medley that morphed from "Nasty Girl" to the whole Bowl doing "The Bird."
Among other acts on the Playboy Jazz Festival bill: Jamie Cullum, the Tia Fuller Quartet, José James, the James Cotton Blues Band with Big Jay McNeely and Los Amigos Invisibles. Returning for a second year as host was George Lopez.