Common hit the Hollywood Bowl stage running on Sunday. Literally. The hip-hop star (and actor and author and activist) sprinted back and forth as he started his set, closing the two-day Playboy Jazz Festival with a sense of urgency and purpose. He had things he really wanted to say. About “brothers dying just to make a living.” About still being “hungry” — 25 years into a remarkable career — because he still sees people starving and struggling. About writing a “new story” of Black America so there are no more Trayvon Martins. And also about women (both “great” and gold-diggers). And about getting high. And about the culture, community and connectivity of music, expressed explicitly via a medley paying tribute to some pioneers of rap.
All of that connected nicely to the community represented by what had come before in the seven-hours-plus of the day’s music. The social fire linked to the smoldering passion of Gregory Porter and social-personal affirmations in a powerhouse performance by L.A.’s own Miles Mosley and the West Coast Get Down. The sense of music as a shared cultural/community experience connected to the performance of Lalah Hathaway (who apart from being a fine artist in her own right stands as a conduit between generations, from the era of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and, of course, her father Donny Hathaway, through Jill Scott, Alicia Keys and even Beyonce, all certainly fans of hers). Ditto for New York’s funk outfit Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, who opened their set with Prince’s “Controversy” and interpreted Marvin Gaye with “Makes Me Wanna Holler” and CCR/Ike & Tina with “Proud Mary.”
Now, if you thought it was strange that hip-hop star Common was headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival at all, perhaps you haven’t been paying much attention to Common. Or to the Playboy Jazz Festival. Or to jazz.
Not that Common’s set was jazz, per se, though it’s not incidental that his more recent album, last year’s profound “Black America Again,” was produced by jazz drummer Karriem Riggins and pianist Robert Glasper, who have sought to erase the lines between jazz and hip-hop. And his band reaches across that in its own way, from the keyboard tangents of Johnnie Smith and Junius Bervine to, especially, the fluid and forceful vocals of Maimouna Youssef, who often shared/stole the spotlight, with her boss’ blessing.
But throughout its history, the streams of jazz, and more importantly, the cultures of jazz, lead from and to so many places, make so many ties, enrich and enliven so many worlds, that this rapper’s mix of inspirational messages and spirited fun born on and still informed by the streets of Chicago made for a fine weekend capper.
And in its 39th edition, the festival has long favored an elastic, inclusive approach to its titular term. No one would argue that the Brazilian sizzle of the jaw-dropping trio led by mandolin magician Hamilton de Holanda didn’t belong any less than the classic big-band blasts of the all-woman DIVA Jazz Orchestra, or drummer Carl Allen’s Art of Elvin tribute to his two big influences, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, drummers who were at the center of jazz’s evolution from be-bop to modern cool.
For that matter, few would argue that saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s Quintet shouldn’t be able to move easily between bracing, Coltrane-inspired celestial explorations and joyous soul-jazz — the latter offered Sunday in one case in a bubbly collaboration with the JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble.
Arguably, the most impactful moments came when the artists honored their cultural, musical and personal histories. Porter’s preacherly baritone, unwavering dedication and expansive, easy engagement makes him an heir to such giants as Oscar Brown, Jr., Les McCann and Curtis Mayfield — not to mention Langston Hughes, honored by name along with Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye, in his “On My Way to Harlem,” an ode to his spiritual home, though he was born in Sacramento and raised in Bakersfield. On “Musical Genocide,” which he opened in concert with some of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” he cites a pantheon of soul heroes, from Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole (“God rest his soul”) to Al Jarreau (launching him into a little wordless vocalese a la the singer who passed away in February). All of them, he sang, would “not agree” to cheapen their art. And nor would he. Emphatically.
In “Take Me To the Alley,” the title song from the 2016 album for which he won the best male jazz vocals Grammy Award, he envisions “the afflicted ones … who lost their way” brought to by God to His table, while also seeing our part of healing and feeding them here on Earth.
Mosley, from whose band Kamasi Washington’s game-changing “Epic” project sprung and who along with Washington and other bandmates played key roles on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” album, also balanced message and celebration Sunday. “Young Lion” and “Abraham” in particular, offer some poetic chest-thumping in their vibrant orchestral jazz grooves, but grounded in earnest humility. The latter, he said in his introduction, honors all who came before, particularly his family and community members who made his dream to play upright bass a reality, giving him in turn a sense of responsibility and honor to uphold.
And Common, in the “Black America Again” title song, spotlights current figures setting the tone by words and example, addressing the injustices from mass incarcerations to the toxic water of Flint to the skewed view of African-American life and lives that persist from the dream factories right here in Hollywood. The line that got the biggest cheer? “Maria Sharapova making more than Serena.”
But it wasn’t all serious, not in the least. At one point Common asked if there might be a woman — “she’s gotta be single” — who could come up on stage from the audience. A table and two stools were brought out, as well as a couple glasses of wine, for a little “date.” The woman, “Peaches” was the name she gave, may have been just a bit too-self-assured in the role, and rather than her being star-struck, it was Common who seemed a little flustered. But he made the most of it, with an off-the-cuff rap riffing on the awkward situation that brought some convulsive laughs from the fans. Kinda perfect for the Playboy Jazz Festival, eh?