Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Aloe Blacc Lead 37th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival

Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
Aloe Blacc performs at the Playboy Jazz Festival on June 13, 2015.

As if on cue, Los Angeles’ trademark sunshine pierced through a heavily clouded sky just in time to kick off the 37th annual Playboy Jazz Festival yesterday at the Hollywood Bowl. Starting at 3 p.m., the sellout crowd of 18,000 was taken on a journey that traversed from straight-ahead and futuristic jazz to gospel and soul, with some Afro-Caribbean jazz thrown in for good measure.

Turning in one of the day’s early standout performances was singer/songwriter Morgan James. Drawing primarily from her Epic Records 2014 debut album Hunter, James punched up the proceedings with commanding, retro-soul vocals that underscored why she was chosen to play Teena Marie in Motown: The Musical. Helping her seal the day’s first standing ovation: the searing “Say the Words” and the sassy “Heart Shake.”

Playboy Jazz Festival Lineup 2015

Offering up a riveting—take on jazz legend John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was the Campbell Brothers, known for their Sacred Steel style of gospel music. The iconic album’s four-part suite is comprised of the songs “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm.” As member Darick Campbell noted at the top of the set, “The steps of these four movements are what we went through with our own spiritual conversion.” Then the trio took the Bowl to church, with patrons dancing, waving hands and singing along to a call-and-response chorus, “Lord, thank you for being so good to me.” Even festival host George Lopez got into the spirit, sashaying along one of the audience walkways with a long white towel swinging from the back of his pants pocket.

That kinetic energy was the perfect lead-in to Jason Moran’s celebration of another music icon, Fats Waller. Focused around Moran’s 2014 Blue Note release All Rise: An Elegy to Fats Waller, the freewheeling dance party set referenced such Waller classics as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’” with Moran donning a head mask of Waller’s likeness, complete with cigarette dangling from his mouth. Among those spotted jumping in the audience: Blue Note chief Don Was. Taking a brief detour, Moran’s band paid tribute to recently deceased jazz giant Ornette Coleman with a cover of “Lonely Woman.”

In another of the evening’s well-received performances, guitarist/arranger/composer Anthony Wilson led the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in paying tribute to his trumpeter dad and orchestra namesake. The trip down memory lane included such Wilson classics as “Blues for Yna Yna,” “Romance,” “Blues for the Count” and Duke Ellington’s Wilson-arranged “Perdido.”

To deafening applause, two more jazz pioneers — Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter— ascended the Hollywood Bowl stage with the Monk Institute Jazz Ensemble. Opening with “And When I Die,” Hancock and Shorter put the ensemble through its paces during a six song-set that included “Who Is It” and “Speak Like a Child.” More than holding their own within the jazz ensemble were young talents Michael Mayo on vocals and Carmen Staaf on piano.

The Bowl crowd was definitely ready to get the party started when Aloe Blacc came on around 8  p.m. Asking, “Are you with me, L.A.?,” Blacc ripped into “I Need a Dollar," then kept the audience on its feet with the audience faves “The Man” and “Wake Me Up.” Also in the mix: a captivatingly bluesy version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

The soulful funk of Oakland, Calif.’s Tower of Power closed out the evening with a rousing set, showcasing a horn section that still sounds as sweet as it did during its ‘70s heyday. While Lenny Williams, the band’s most well-known frontman, was missed, Ray Green revved up the sing-along momentum on a string of memorable songs including “This Time It’s Real,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “What Is Hip?” before capping their performance with “You’re Still a Young Man.”

Rounding out Saturday’s lineup were the Eddie Palmieri Afro-Caribbean Jazz Band, saxophonist Melissa Aldana and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble. The 2015 Playboy Jazz Festival concludes today with a lineup that features Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard, Ledisi and Snarky Puppy.