Heightened post-Manchester security measures and a sun playing hide-and-seek with the clouds didn’t dampen fans’ expectations as they patiently waited in long lines to get seated for the 39th annual Playboy Jazz Festival. And day one’s (June 10) illuminating slate of legendary performers and fresh faces didn’t disappoint the packed house inside the Hollywood Bowl as everyone celebrated jazz in its many colorful permutations.
Among the highlights:
One of several acts making their Bowl debut, the Django Festival Allstars warmed up the afternoon portion of the program with its take on late European jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s driving, swinging style called “hot jazz.” To shouts of “Viva la France” from festival host George Lopez, the French group reinterpreted such pop standards as “Tea for Two” in addition to performing original compositions. One of the group’s celeb fans hanging out in the wings: Leonardo DiCaprio. Also spotted in the Bowl audience later in the day: media personality/author Tavis Smiley.
Heartfelt tributes to two deceased icons — Playboy Fest favorites Bobby Hutcherson and Al Jarreau — were also crowd pleasers. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris, one of jazz’s next-gen stars, helmed the late afternoon tribute to pioneering vibraphonist Hutcherson. Joining him onstage were acclaimed pianist Patrice Rushen and legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers (nicknamed the “Godfather of Neo-Soul”), along with two more vibraphonist young guns, Warren Wolf and Joel Ross. The dueling vibraphonists powered their way through several Hutcherson classics, including “Highway One” and “Little B’s Poem.” Noted Harris of Hutcherson during the set, “This gentleman was absolutely brilliant. He changed my life as a musician and a man.”
Bassist Marcus Miller’s homage to jazz vocalist Jarreau closed the evening. “Raise your hand if your life has been touched by Al Jarreau,” declared Miller. “His spirit came through his music so clearly.” As a sea of hands rose throughout the Bowl, special guest Rahsaan Patterson vocally personified that spirit on covers of the Jarreau gems “I Will Be There for You,” “We’re in This Love Together” and “So Good.”
Opening his set with an audience-rousing version of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Miller and his band also performed the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” as well as two of his own diverse compositions: “Maputo,” originally performed by Bob James and David Sanborn in 1986, and “Da Butt,” the 1988 E.U. hit from Spike Lee’s School Daze soundtrack — the latter of which he intriguingly mashed with Jarreau’s “Roof Garden.”
Prior to going onstage, Miller talked about Jarreau’s enduring legacy. “He was the connect. There were the great jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Then there was a little gulf in the early ‘70s; there were some good singers but no Sarah Vaughans. Then all of sudden in 1975-76, Al Jarreau showed up. And everybody went, ‘Oh, this is the next step.’ Al knew all this background about jazz, but he also knew about fusion and contemporary music and incorporated all of that into his style. After that, he said let me try this pop song. And the next thing you know, Al had a whole other career. He was very inspiring to see.”
Also making her Playboy Jazz Fest/Hollywood Bowl bow was British soulstress Corinne Bailey Rae. Dressed in a shimmery silver jumpsuit that complemented her ethereal, jazz-inflected sound, Rae delivered a set that encompassed fan faves “Put Your Records On,” “Like a Star,” “Closer” and “Green Aphrodisiac,” as well as her Grammy-winning cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” from her The Love EP and “Do You Ever Think of Me?,” penned with Motown legend Valerie Simpson for Rae’s latest album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers.
Backstage, Rae told Billboard that she wasn’t nervous at all about making her Bowl debut. “The way it’s laid out is very friendly. It doesn’t feel like you’re in front of 18,000 people.” Rae, who’s also set to play a round of festivals including Glastonbury, also promised that she won’t wait another six years between albums. “I was learning to be a producer in that time, which means you try this and that and it doesn’t work. It’s funny what you learn in taking a massive gap like that. Having now performed this album for 18 months, I’ve learned you can record songs one way and perform them in 1,000 different ways. And now after writing for various projects, including contemporary, TV and film, including the song [cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist”] for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, I feel like a spring unwinding. It’s been really nice.”
Rounding out the Playboy Jazz Festival’s day one slate were several more standout performances. Those included innovative Grammy winner Jacob Collier, whose one-man band/multi-visual performance (opening with his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”) had the audience buzzing; blues masters Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ coming together as TajMo, who had the audience dancing as did the indefatigable Arturo Sandoval and his Latin jazz band, joined onstage by actor/bongo drum player Andy Garcia.
This year’s Playboy Jazz Festival wraps up Sunday (June 11), starting at 3 p.m. with a slate that includes first-time festival performer Common, Cory Henry (Snarky Puppy) with the Funk Apostles, the Kenny Garrett Quintet, Gregory Porter, Miles Mosley and the West Coast Get Down and Lalah Hathaway.