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Playboy Jazz Festival plays to wide audience

June 10, 2009 |  7:46 pm
SPALDING_3_ Radio-friendly acts and underground artists share the stage at this respected two-day event, this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl.

For the hard-core jazz fan, a serious, "Kind of Blue"-dyed collector, the Playboy Jazz Festival can sometimes feel like a bit of an uneven proposition.

On one hand there is the festival itself, a sprawling two-day buffet of non-stop live music, summer sun and good vibrations happening this Saturday and Sunday in one of the most famous and naturally beautiful spaces in the city, the Hollywood Bowl. After 31 years, the combination has become a local tradition, with some fans reserving seats before the lineups are announced. 

On the other hand there is the festival's mass-appeal booking philosophy, one that inevitably leads to the scratching of a few jazz-obsessed heads. 

For every classic performance-in-the-making from such respected artists as the Wayne Shorter Quartet or up-and-coming bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding, there are sets from more broadly commercial acts that can have trouble competing with the festival's, well, festive setting. 

"It can be kind of a mixed blessing," said Herbie Hancock, who has performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival a number of times, including last year. "I'd much rather perform at night when I have some heavy stuff that I'm doing . . . The daytime, for me as a performer and as a member of the audience, it's [conducive to] -- I was going to use the word 'lighter' fare but that can be misconstrued -- anything that has a more overt kind of power to it I think works in the daytime."

Playboy always has had a welcoming attitude toward funk, blues and world music artists, and this year the always impressive Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Nigerian icon King Sunny Ade are sure to be among the event's highlights. But it's the festival's fondness for radio-friendly smooth jazz that makes it somewhat unique among its contemporaries.

Sunday marks the return of breezy saxophonist Kenny G, an artist that festival president and executive vice president of Playboy Enterprises Dick Rosenzweig acknowledges is a divisive figure.

"We are running the gamut on this thing," Rosenzweig said. "If a reviewer, starting with Leonard [Feather, the Times' jazz critic until his death in 1994] booked the show . . . we'd have, you know, 8,000 people there. So if the Bowl holds 17,600 or whatever it is, approaching 18,000, we have to appeal to 36,000 people if we count the two days. If we were strictly a purist festival, we couldn't do that." 
Festival producer Darlene Chan admits that organizers naturally are looking to sell tickets, but she thinks the audience has come to expect a wide range of musical styles and tastes on the bill. "Our audience, they know it's going to happen like that. And if they don't like it they can go out and picnic for an hour," she said. 

"I think it makes more sense for Playboy to do that, considering the audience," Hancock said when asked about the festival's broad-reaching booking philosophy. "Because it's a cross-generational festival. That's the good news." 

Given the state of the music industry, it's tough to argue with the logic. The festival's East Coast counterpart, the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City, had a reputation for booking more strictly jazz artists for its multiple stages than does Playboy. It was recently canceled for the first time in 37 years after losing its sponsorship.

The Playboy Jazz Festival is without a sponsor for its second consecutive year, and it's tempting to worry about its health in a tough economic climate. Chan acknowledged that ticket sales are somewhat down from last year, with many fans now opting to attend just one day instead of two.

Tickets at the festival's lowest, $20-price point are popular however, with no seats available through Ticketmaster for either day at press time.

Still, Playboy's reps maintain that their commitment to the jazz festival is solid. 

"We're certainly not going to give up this festival," said Rosenzweig. "It's one of the most elegant, best and most fun events that we do as a company."

Part of the fun of a festival like Playboy is a sense of discovery, and amid all the familiar faces on this weekend's bill is Alfredo Rodríguez, a 23-year-old Cuban pianist who defected in January and will make his U.S. festival debut Sunday. Discovered by über-producer Quincy Jones at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 2006, Rodríguez wowed a SXSW crowd with a brief performance earlier this year.

Speaking by phone with the help of an interpreter, Rodríguez feels honored to be playing what he views as one of the biggest, most important jazz festivals in the country. When asked who he's most looking forward to seeing, Rodríguez doesn't hesitate. 

"Wayne Shorter Quartet," he said, his English clearing with a laugh. Through his translator, he added, "I think he's one of the greatest pioneers of experimental music. Because he takes music to its limits."

--Chris Barton

DEBUT: Esperanza Spalding heads to the Bowl. Credit: Playboy Jazz Festival.