“Jazz is the most personal arts,” wrote Hugh Hefner in the program for the 1982 Playboy Jazz Festival. “And if we bring our passion to it, we are rewarded.” That was indeed the case at the Hollywood Bowl yesterday (June 9) when the festival, now celebrating its 40th year, opened its two-day run.
Hefner, who founded the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959 and introduced at the Hollywood Bowl in 1979, died last September. But his spirit was definitely felt throughout the day, which host George Lopez acknowledged during the Miles Electric Band’s early evening set when he asked attendees to throw up their index and second fingers in a bunny-eared salute to the cultural game-changer.
Headlined by Anthony Hamilton and Snarky Puppy, day one got f to an energetic start with the dynamic Afro-Colombian band Monsieur Periné. Fronted by engaging singer Catalina Garcia, the group had the thankless task playing before a Bowl that was still filling up with festival fans. But the eight-piece group — named best new artist at the 2016 Latin Grammy Awards — wowed lucky early arrivals with its fresh blend French pop, salsa, cumbia and Gypsy jazz.
Equally powerful was the Matthew Whitaker Trio. The 17-year-old piano/Hammond B3 virtuoso’s palpable excitement about making his festival debut seeded a very robust performance. Playing in his socks, Whitaker zeroed in on festival-goers’ multigenerational tastes with songs like “Mas Que Nada” (featured on his Outta the Box album), Chick Corea’s “Got a Match?,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and Stevie Wonder’s “As” and “I Wish.” In addition to the always pleasing Miles Electric Band, rounding out the afternoon-into-early evening lineup were emerging Cuban star Daymé Arocena, the Edmar Castaneda Quartet, Roy Gaines & His Orchestra Tuxedo Blues and jazz icons Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin.
Snarky Puppy, who last appeared at Playboy Jazz two years ago, brought a crowd-pleasing set indicative the Grammy Award-winning group’s freeform, experimental style that incorporates jazz, funk, R&B, soul, fusion, jam-band and pop. Celebrating Snarky Puppy’s 15th anniversary this year, a 10-member contingent the ensemble played tunes from its older catalog as well as its most recent album, 2016’s Culcha Vulcha (which won a Grammy last year for best contemporary instrumental album).
“We’re a group friends that plays whatever we want, combining our mutual and individual influences,” frontman Michael League told Billboard with a laugh before the group’s performance. “But to be more specific, I consider us an American band in the way that blues, funk, soul, gospel, jazz and all very proprietary stuff from this nation are the backbone.”
Snarky Puppy next travels to Morocco to perform for that country’s Festival Gnaoua on June 21 and 23 before going back in the studio in August to record its next album. “I have 50 little threads ideas but haven’t anything yet,” said League the project. “I don’t think anyone else has either. We’re a very last-minute organization in that way creatively. A lot that is a byproduct the fact that we have so many things going on as a group and individually that we can only focus on what’s in front us. But when the album is directly in front us, everybody will hone in.”
Snarky Puppy will also tour the world in 2019 and expand its two-year-old Miami-based GroundUP Music into two more markets next year as well in Argentina and Italy.
Speaking individual projects, League just finished mastering a new album with his other band Bokanté (also on tour this summer) and Metropole. The all-acoustic album arrives this September Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. He’s also finishing production on David Crosby’s next album. The pair worked together on Crosby’s 2016 Lighthouse album. Their pending outing pairs Crosby with League and singer/songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. The foursome was the touring band after Lighthouse was released.
“Everyone is trading lead vocals,” said League the album. “The colors and textures the four voices blending together is very interesting. The album itself has a songwriter-y feel with elements indie folk, some groovier sounds and music reminiscent David’s earlier solo work.”
Hamilton’s ro-raising set closed out the first evening as the soulful-voiced singer — backed by the harmonizing Hamiltones—had everyone dancing in their seats and in the aisles. His set ran the gamut his extensive catalog, including “Charlene,” “Sucka 4 You,” “Cool,” “Sista Big Bones,” “The Point It All” and “So in Love,” his duet with Jill Scott.
“I’m going to give the festival] exactly what they ordered,” Hamilton told Billboard before his show, which also marked his debut at the Playboy Jazz Festival. “Given the legacy the greats who’ve shared that stage like Nina Simone, Etta James and others and be part that history is a big deal.”
No longer with RCA Records (“I’m a free agent now, which feels good”), Hamilton said he’s ready to “build his own empire,” planning an album for himself as well as the Hamiltones. There may even be a collaboration down the road with Eric Clapton.
“I got an email from Eric Clapton letting me know that he’s a big fan,” explained Hamilton. “So maybe one day we’ll get together and work on some stuff.” Hamilton also talked about a song he collaborated on produced by Salaam Remi, “Love Conquers All.” A video for the song, which addresses brutality and injustice, is in the works. “It’s beyond a video, a cinematic masterpiece,” said Hamilton. “And the lyrics are very powerful. People really need to feel what’s going on. It’s sad that it’s 2018 and we’re going back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s just ignorant.”
Beyond music, Hamilton has signed a deal with the African-American Expressions to sell a line greeting cards, calendars and journals. He’s also working on a cookbook as well. “Oh yeah, I love cooking,” said the Grammy winner who already has several meals posted on chefd.com. Among Hamilton’s specialties: garlic shrimp with butter fettuccine noodles, salmon spaghetti and pan-seared chicken breasts with purple cabbage and turkey bacon.
Day two the Playboy Jazz Festival (June 10) features a lineup that includes Charles Lloyd & the Marvels with special guest Lucinda Williams, Parlor Social, Kneebody, the legendary Ramsey Lewis with his quintet and headliners Jazmine Sullivan and Tower Power, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.