A tribute to Milt Jackson served as a counterbalance for everything that was wrong with the 28th edition of the Playboy Jazz Festival, sold out, scorching and sad.
Stefon Harris stood in for Bags, as the great vibraharpist was known, and he couldn't have done better. He had many of the departed soul master's little habits down, including swinging from the heels, and added his own impossibly fleet licks. The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra spelled him, playing with their customary verve and precision from richly inventive charts by co-leader John Clayton and sending out such brilliant soloists as Clay Jenkins, trumpet, and George Bohanon, trombone.
The sad part is that this is probably one of the last of those colorful and formerly abundant beasts, the concert jazz band.
It's not as far along the road to oblivion, though, as the white haired Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans, which played -- while seated -- an elegantly courteous brand of jazz, meant for listeners, that was a refreshing but wistful taste of fading Old World values.
Besides the Hamilton orchestra, the highlight of the two sold-out days was getting to hear the Eddie Palmieri Afro-Caribbean All-Stars, featuring David Sanchez on tenor and Regina Carter on electric violin. Like Harris, these two are burners, but they could not outmatch such Palmieri regulars as the brilliant trumpeter Brian Lynch, who is two steps ahead of the ordinary ear, and alto man Donald Harrison, likewise.
The soloists sailed unstoppably on with never a dull moment, atop the clear and constant rhythm from pianist Palmieri, who has the greatest left hand since Noro Morales, and his brotherlike bass man, Jose Santiago, who subtly refreshes the powerful underpinning figures before they get monotonous.
A happy few more served loyally in the cause of jazz authenticity. One was saxophonist Benny Golson, who made a tasty, easygoing dish out of the long-ago ballad "Cherry." Another loyal bunch was the Golden Striker Trio, with pianist Mulgrew Miller, the fleet yet homespun guitarist Russell Malone and bass titan Ron Carter. The Russian-born pianist Eldar followed the straight-ahead line with vigor and aplomb.
Bill Cosby's Cos of Good Music starred the promising trumpet newcomer Christian Scott, out of New Orleans. Steve Turre played dual conch shells, and Kevin Eubanks got off his customary super inventive, swinging guitar licks. And we mustn't forget the hotly creative saxophonist Branford Marsalis or the wistfully nostalgic flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione.
McCoy Tyner, looking wan, got his signature dark, deep piano sound when he got a chance to do a whole number. But most of the time, he supported the members of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, an agile and erotic troupe without much jazz provenance. The same could be said of Baaba Maal's Senegalese dancers.
The driven Brit pianist Jamie Cullum seemed like he could play a little jazz someday, but at the moment he is too breathless.
Elder Edward Babb, a bar-walking, gospel-quoting, mighty loud trombonist, is never going to be a J.J. Johnson. Neither are the many other trombonists in his band, the McCullough Sons of Thunder.
But at least Babb means what he says. This was not the case with the noted singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, who brought the Imposters along to help him out with his piano man. That was the equally noted Allen Toussaint, a fellow producer with a major New Orleans track record and the ability to play exactly like Jelly Roll Morton.
The outcome, intended to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, was about what you would expect from the two crack-shot producers: overproduced empty pieties, predictable stuff about helping your brother and overcoming tragedy. The band for the two stars' River in Reverse tour, just getting started, was competent enough.