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Live review: Playboy Jazz Festival

June 15, 2009 | 12:04 am

Anat_3_"Rain or shine" was printed across every Playboy Jazz Festival ticket this year, a boilerplate message that seemed laughably perfunctory for a summertime concert in Southern California but nearly encapsulated each day of the weekend festival.

On Saturday, the Hollywood Bowl stage had to be covered after a late-morning drizzle threatened to soak the first day of the festival's 31st installment. But thankfully, the closest thing to an umbrella seen over the weekend was a mini-parade of white parasols carried by women pulled from the crowd to dance along with the New Birth Brass Band during the group's early Saturday set.

While the New Orleans-based band enjoyed a brief flash of sun seemingly through the sheer force of "St. James Infirmary" and other raucous favorites, the Playboy Jazz Festival didn't need perfect weather to get people in a festive mood.

Indeed, weaving into the near-capacity venue through a logjam of wheeled coolers and Trader Joe's bags gave one the feeling of arriving at the city's largest multicultural potluck as much as at a world-famous jazz festival.

But for all the genial passing of plates between Bowl boxes and bleachers, the festival still comes down to the music.

On Saturday afternoon, Dizzy Gillespie-inspired trumpeter Jon Faddis led his quartet through straight-ahead jazz that earned a swell of appreciation as he touched on Lee Morgan's classic "Sidewinder" before interjecting a somewhat clumsy if well-intended rap that gave a shout-out to Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie and other swing-minded jazz titans.

Rising star Esperanza Spalding, her signature cloud of curly hair hemmed into a ponytail, combined a deep, roomy tone on upright bass with a smoothly soaring voice that ran over the chatty crowd like raw honey. At one point, she delivered a restless, weather-appropriate cover of "Wild Is the Wind" that dared recall Nina Simone, before warning that she and her band would "like to do something that could be considered fusion."

"Hmm," she added slyly.

If she expected outrage after Faddis' more tradition-minded celebration of swing, there was none coming as she switched to a Fender bass for Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species," adding acrobatic scatting over the twisting composition, a fitting homage to Sunday's performer.

"I hope we got to you a little bit tonight," Spalding said at the close of her set. She needn't have worried.

On the heels of a hype-building introduction from her bandmate worthy of James Brown, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings then overpowered the Bowl with taut, brassy funk. Though Jones' show-stopping moves fit her billing as "110 pounds of pure soul excitement," she was content to move festivalgoers to show a little "attitude" in their seats against her band's vintage sound.

Though Jones won over the crowd, it was difficult to tell at one point which received the larger ovation from the back of the Bowl -- her take on the mashed potato or the group tossing Mardi Gras beads midway through her set.

Under sunny skies Sunday, the festival's second day offered a far more typical atmosphere as saxophonist-clarinetist Anat Cohen took the stage.

Already having performed the previous day as part of Bill Cosby's ensemble, the Cos of Good Music, Cohen added an additional fire to that group, and her own quartet found her venturing even further into her own groove.

During one composition, Jason Lindner reached into his piano to pluck and mute the strings for a ticking, almost electronic-sounding effect as Cohen sped through ever faster runs on the clarinet over a driving rhythm, inspiring one attendee in the box seats to remark appreciatively, "I don't know what her name is, but she's tough."

Tough enough to deliver some serious blowing in the midday sun while people were still filing in, seemingly with a later timetable than Saturday, as Alfredo Rodríguez's trio made its festival debut.

Rodríguez got the crowd's attention when host Cosby (casually cool in a festival T-shirt and track pants) mentioned the young Cuban pianist's mentor Quincy Jones in his introduction. Rodríguez then made every effort to retain the crowd's attention with an at-times rollicking set that occasionally well captured what Thelonious Monk would call "ugly beauty."

Scheduled for a somewhat surprising afternoon appearance, the Wayne Shorter Quartet earned a rousing ovation, in part inspired by Cosby drawing a favorable parallel to the Lakers' attempt to close out a championship while Shorter was playing.

Given the time and the place, it was easy to wonder whether Shorter would attempt to replicate the free-flowing performance of his 75th birthday concert in December at Disney Hall, a free-flowing and uncompromising affair that demanded careful listening. No need. Even with Geoffrey Keezer stepping in for the injured Danilo Perez on piano, Shorter's current quartet simply might not know how to lay off the throttle.

While Sunday's set might have included a more consistent groove that occasionally hinted toward his past work, Shorter still opted to take the Bowl's crowd as far out as possible, buoyed by the polyrhythmic high-wire act of bassist John Patitucci and cannon-armed drummer Brian Blade.

Though it was admittedly disconcerting to turn to see candy-colored beach balls bounding among the Bowl's upper sections during Shorter's adventurous set, railing against such festival trappings misses the point. With a near-capacity crowd ready for a seriously great time, Shorter and so many others stood tall with seriously great music.

--Chris Barton

Photo: Anat Cohen. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times

Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the New Birth Brass Band as the Rebirth Brass Band.
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