EmptySaturday-Sunday, June 16-17
Those good old, down-and-dirty, secret-coded, everlasting, big-beat-bearing, exalted, celebratory, communal, deep-sourced, mournful-messaging, ready-for-anything blues did what was necessary during the weekend and saved the 29th Playboy Jazz Festival from dullsville.
A pair of tried-and-true blues people, Buddy Guy and Etta James, closed out Saturday and Sunday night, respectively, with their contrasting methodology concerning the words that go with this exalted harmonic genre. Guy did it the Chicago way, a patch of brilliant guitar playing here, a few soft-voiced classic verses there, lots of palsy-walsy efforts to jolly his 16,500 listeners. And of course, that big Southside Chicago beat.
James lets no tear fall unwrung as she advances tirelessly with her familiar narratives, laced with homespun hyperbole about how she'd rather be a blind girl than see him with someone else, or how she feels like sugar on the floor after being spurned by one of the many bad boys of the blues. Now almost 70, and newly slenderized and blond, she prowls around the stage in her pants suit as she tells her melancholy tales, employing a string section for her monster hits like "At Last."
Fearless Red Holloway made short work of a calypso number by Sonny Rollins, and no invidious comparisons could be drawn between the two tenors. Later on, the 80th birthday boy took up his alto for Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite," and you would have sworn it was Sonny Stitt up there, Stitt being one of the brother geniuses he traveled with when he was young.
The blues made Count Basie's band famous, and the remains of the group ran through a set's worth of his classics including "Li'l Darlin' " and "Down for the Count." Trombonist Bill Hughes is now directing the ensemble , and the only genuine Count Basie veteran on board is baritone saxophonist John Williams. This was a pretty raw-sounding bunch, and even the blues couldn't rescue it entirely.
Angelique Kidjo had preceded the Basie band with a lively and vigorous set of Afro specialties, urgently rhythmic and blessed with some pretty tunes that suited her pretty, powerful voice. Not really the blues, but joyous.
New Orleans, often called the birthplace of the blues, sent in the only soloist who could rival Holloway for authenticity: Jeremy Pelt, the trumpet player in this year's Cos of Good Music, directed by festival host Bill Cosby. Pelt played a ballad with such taste and poise, not to mention unerring pitch and a beautiful sound, that you felt he could be right up there with the greatest New Orleanian of them all, Louis Armstrong. OK, someday.
Ndugu Chancler drove the outstanding soloists from the drums. These included James Carter, who started barking and wailing with his own organ trio earlier and kept right on with it. Saxophonist Vincent Herring kept up, and studio stalwart guitarist Ray Parker Jr. brought in a pure, cold, hard R&B stream, wearing boots for the purpose.
Trumpet killer Terence Blanchard, another Crescent City production, took the afternoon off from his film-scoring desk to bring in a quintet that played his stirring score for "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," a Spike Lee telefilm about Hurricane Katrina. It's an absorbing piece of advanced music, and Blanchard gave the improvised trumpet part a spectacular reading.