Whether you like your jazz straight ahead, New Orleans, funky or Latin style, there was something for everyone at the 31st annual Playboy Jazz Festival (June 13-14 at the Hollywood Bowl). Comedian Bill Cosby was back again as host of the two-day event, which attracted such notables as the festival’s longtime executive producer Hugh Hefner and actor/singer Jamie Foxx.
A nearly packed house on Saturday was treated to a strong lineup that included New Orleans’ New Birth Brass Band who soon had the crowd waving white umbrellas and handkerchiefs during its spirited set. Singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding alternated between electric and upright bass during a skillful, energetic set that further underscored the 24-year-old’s sharp technique and unique talent she exhibited on her critically acclaimed second album “Esperanza.”
Worth the price of admission alone, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings whipped the crowd into a soulful frenzy before handing the performance baton to Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band, who paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Miles Davis Classic, “Kind of Blue.” The Pete Escovedo Orchestra, featuring Sheila E., Peter Michael and Juan Escovedo revved up the proceedings with a high-energy set that kept the Bowl audience on its feet and dancing in the aisles. Norman Brown’s Summer Storm-Eric Darius, Phil Perry and Gail Johnson-paid tribute to the late Wayman Tisdale followed by the evening’s closing act, the Neville Brothers.
Despite noticeably more empty seats, Sunday’s show still offered up some nice moments. Among those was pianist Alfred Rodriguez, the 23-year-old Cuban protégé of Quincy Jones who was making his festival debut. The other standout performance was that of R&B and pop veteran Patti Austin. Though her latest albums have saluted such icons as Ella Fitzgerald and George Gershwin, Austin came out belting songs like the Brothers Johnson’s 1980 hit “Stomp!,” “Hey Joe” (immortalized by The Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Brainstorm’s 1977 disco chestnut “Lovin’ Is Really My Game.”
Also heard backstage during the festival:
Self-ranking her well-received festival performance at only 65%, Esperanza Spalding says each show is a learning experience and journey of discovery. Her goal each time, she adds, is to always “captivate the audience.” As for her next album, she hopes to release something at the beginning of 2010. And despite fewer jazz radio stations and waning coverage of the genre, Spalding-one of 10 artists participating in Banana Republic‘s most recent ad campaign-isn’t overly concerned. “Jazz is such a living, breathing creature. It may not manifest itself as a magazine or radio station but this music will never die.”
A soft-spoken Hefner recalled his long-ago dream was to create the single greatest weekend in jazz. “And here we are 31 years later: a great party with a great soundtrack. Jazz is a true American art form that brings together all races. Sometimes I feel sorry for the younger generation because many of them aren’t familiar with a Duke Ellington or Count Basie. We’re all concerned about keeping this music alive on the airwaves. But don’t fear for the death of jazz. It has come through tough times before [the depression] and will again. The 83-year-old also noted that he and his ladies – minus his soon-to-be married ex Kendra Wilkinson – are working on season six of the cable show “Girls Next Door.”
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are recording a follow-up to their last album, “100 Days, 100 Nights.” Jones says the group is aiming to release the set before the new year. “I’m doing some of the writing along with the guys. There’s no title yet or clear direction. Once we finish recording all the songs, we’ll come up with a theme.” Jones, also working on a gospel album of her own, says a Dap-Kings live show is the real deal. “Other shows have all these machines and 20 dancers moving across the floor. You don’t know who to watch. With us, the guys are playing and it’s just me all over the stage.”
For the first time, Pete Escovedo and family members Sheila E., Peter Michael and Juan have recorded an album together. “It’s funny,” says Sheila, who notes the family is seeking distribution for the project. “We’ve all played on each other’s records but not collectively as a family.” They performed two songs from the album on Saturday (June 13): “All Around” and “Do What It Do.” Similar to the mainstream appeal of Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural,” the Escovedos’ album features Joss Stone, Raphael Saadiq, George Duke, Earth, Wind & Fire, Gloria Estefan and Prince. It’s pop/R&B but in keeping with the old school flavor of pops,” adds Peter Michael.
Patti Austin, who began singing at the age of four and did backgrounds as a young teen on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” says her career hasn’t been about becoming a star but about becoming a good enough singer to “manipulate the crap out of an audience.” The chanteuse is at work on two new albums. She’s collaborating again with the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Germany on a studio album paying tribute to Duke Ellington. It’s in the mixing stage now. For the second album, she’s teaming with pianists Greg Phillinganes and Shelly Berg on a “straight up piano project” slated for release later this year.