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Review: 33rd Annual Playboy Jazz Festival

Ambrose Akinmusire Playboy Jazz Fest 2011
Tony Gieske
Ambrose Akinmusire

The Hollywood Bowl mainstay, which traditionally draws 35,000 over two days, features blues, brass and Bill Cosby.

A gentleman from Oakland kicked off the 33rd annual Playboy Jazz Festival with a dazzling helping of trumpet work, employing tone rows and various other modernisms of yesteryear with a warm and luscious sound that was almost as sunny as the Hollywood Bowl on a Saturday afternoon.

Ambrose Akinmusire, 28, while festive, did not forget the jazz part of the title. He kept his playing rolling onward. It was not certain that this amounted to -- open up your memory trove – swinging, but it was clear that his work with the great drummer Charlie Persip, the blazing young bassist and Best New Artist Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding and the roaring Mingus Big Band, among others, had taught him how to command attention of jazz lovers. (These filled the Bowl to the brim, by the way, on both days of the event, which traditionally draws 35,000.) It looked like the adventurous Ambrose would be a hard act to follow, but Saturday got better and better.

Among those keeping up was Anat Cohen, the Israeli clarinetist and saxophonist, who scattered her notes unexpectedly about the staff for a while as Akinmusire had. She led off a satisfying series of solos by the other members of the Cos of Good Music. Cos, of course, is Bill Cosby, the festival MC, who’s been putting together spectacular jam bands like this one for decades. He likes to use Dwayne Burno on bass and Ndugu Chancler on drums, and they never let him down.

But it is festival producer Darlene Chan who marshals the troops every year, and 2011 was one of her better efforts. Buddy Guy was among the bigger names she booked, along with Terence Blanchard and Diane Reeves, and the trio brought in plenty of muscle. Reeves gave the patrons a helping of her well-known vocal muscle, scatting with precision and singing ballads with warmth; Trumpeter Blanchard subbed for the ailing modernist Lee Konitz, relying a little too heavily on his matchless speed and brilliant high register; And Chicago’s Buddy Guy gave his usual compelling blues set -- maybe a little too usual -- and showcased a 12-year-old guitar protege named Quinn Sullivan. The latter rang with authenticity, as though Guy had found him in the cotton fields.

The Rebirth Brass Band of New Orleans fame, led by Dr. Michael White, has become familiar to the fans, and so has Eddie Palmieri, out of Puerto Rico. The latter was alive with rhythm; the former, not so much. Palmieri drives his big band from his throat and the piano, assisted in generous measure by timbales, congas and bongos. From a mere trumpet and two trombones, he gets a sound mass that rivals Stan Kenton’s, only far more musical. Trumpeter Brian Lynch and trombonist Jimmy Bosch soloed freshly and songfully.

Fourplay slid smoothly by on a current of electricity Saturday with guitarists Bob James, Nathan East and newcomer Chuck Loeb aboard. The brighter highlight that day came from the SF Jazz Collective, paced by vibraharpist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (Anat’s brother) and rising avant garde trombonist Robin Eubanks (Kevin’s brother).

Then again, any act that followed guitarists John Scofield and Robben Ford risked sounding puny on Sunday. The blues virtuosos meant every note of their long, exquisitely detailed phrases, and man, were they enjoyable ... more fun than Buddy Guy, even.

Earlier Saturday, Geri Allen’s Timeline Band could have done without that tap dancer, even though he came with the appealing name Maurice Chestnut. Grammy winner Bill Cunliffe’s Resonance Big Band, on the other hand, was greatly enhanced by its visitor, the spectacular pianist Marian Petrescu, who played Oscar Peterson faster than Oscar Peterson.

But in the end, it was an instrument-less act from Saturday, soul a capella group Naturally 7, who summed up the gathering succinctly with accuracy, momentum, and joy -- virtues not at all uncommon during the 33rd Playboy Jazz Festival.