The 34 Annual Watts Jazz Festival and Drum Festival would have been hot enough without a post-summer heat wave. Yet, despite the record heat, hundreds gathered to hear some of the world’s great musicians throw down at this, one of the most enduring and highly prized dates on the LA cultural calendar. From all reports, Saturday’s Drum Festival hit hard with mad skills and intensity. On Sunday, with names like Randy Weston, Bennie Maupin, Patrice Rushen, Big Black, Dwight Trible, Ernie Watts, Harold Land, Babatunde Lea, and Munyungo Jackson, you couldn’t lose especially if you snagged yourself a shady spot to watch and listen.
LA’s great Jazz Elder Buddy Collette had passed on days earlier. Collette’s input was always part of the Watts Festival, and for this year’s performance a tribute poster on the backstage curtain kept his presence watching over the festivities. Ironically, the great artist/illustrator Varnette P. Honeywood died a couple weeks before with an exhibit up at the Watts Towers Art Center.
After a Yoruba blessing, the Harold Land Trio began a set of richly complex melodies and times, trying to cool things down with some Brazilian sounding tunes. Land’s broad harmonic sense created full orchestral arrangements with the help of bass player Henry Franklin and drummer Land Richards. A perfectionist with a great ear, Land went from a lush ballad to a breezy complex hard bop train ride with Franklin and Richards stoking the flames.
Hosting the event, radio personality James Janisse and the Baroness of the Bass, Nedra Wheeler, worked well together, coordinating the action and maintaining the pace. UC Berkeley’s Young Musician’s Program’s premier group, Indigo, made their official debut, and earned an enthusiastic standing O with their thrilling interpretations of compositions by the likes of Cannonball Adderly and Freddie Hubbard. The solid quintet sounded an optimistic future for jazz education.
Babatunde Lea reunited the musicians responsible for Umbo Weti, his tribute album to the great Santana/Pharoah Sanders vocalist Leon Thomas. Gary Brown, Patrice Rushen, former Rolling Stone/Zappa saxist Ernie Watts, and star vocalist Dwight Trible celebrated Thomas with familiar songs from the singer’s storied career. Lea and Rushen each take an acapella turn before setting Dwight Trible loose in a rocking R&B tour de force, Boom Boom Boom. The veteran reed player made it the Ernie Watts Jazz Festival every time he was turned loose. The tight quintet swung hard, with Trible’s performance again begging the question, why isn’t this man more widely recorded? “Prince of Peace” and “the Creator Has a Master Plan” were delivered with a musical and spiritual authenticity that was profoundly inspiring. Rushen created solid two fisted accompaniment and wandered wonderfully in solo.
Doing double duty, Rushen returned for more hard work with the Jazz Mentorship Program All Stars. This time the versatile and enduring pianist mixed it up with the amazing Bennie Maupin, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, Ndugu Chancler, Jeff Littleton, and her festival co-organizer, Munyungo Jackson. The busy sextet made the impossible sound effortless, tapping into some classic material, including a devastating take on Miles’ All Blues. Their smoldering funk jam finale had Ms. Wheeler dancing and singing in the artists’ tent. Soloists Maupin, Rodriguez, and Rushen burned, yet their obvious delight kept a playful edge on all the hard work. With these people going into the schools to teach music, jazz has a bright future.
Finally, the great Randy Weston, fresh from a day of autographing his recently released autobiography, ambled onstage, and conducted a concise exchange with legendary hand drummer Big Black. Weston posed brief phrases and Big Black effortlessly answered to the delight of the crowd. They ended with an extended version of Weston’s classic Hi-Fly.
During a tribute to Watts Towers Director Rosie Lee Hooks, the honoree asked repeatedly, where are the cameras and the tv crews that show up in Watts on a minutes’ notice to feed on a tragedy? Why isn’t a successful multi-culti happy family picnic with World Class virtuosos playing for free a newsworthy event?