2019 American Music Awards

Backbeat: Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter, India.Arie Rock Playboy Jazz Fest

Debuting Playboy Jazz Fest host George Lopez (left) talks music with Hugh Hefner (Gail Mitchell)

The Playboy Jazz Festival celebrated its 35th anniversary with a new host -- comedian/actor George Lopez -- and arguably one of the best lineups in recent years.

Performers ranging from the Grammy-winning Robert Glasper Experiment and George Duke Jeffrey Osborne to Gregory Porter and India.Arie may not be classified as strictly jazz. But the genre’s major influence in their music, paired with performances by such jazz notables as Herbie Hancock with vocal group Naturally 7, Bob James and David Sanborn and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, turned the two-day fest (June 15-16) at the Hollywood Bowl into a jazz, funk, Latin, soul, world music fest rolled into one.

Midway through day one, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and Lopez held court in the backstage pressroom. Noted Lopez, “Bill Cosby [who retired as host in 2012 after 30+ years] played such an instrumental part in the festival. For him to ask me to take over the reins is a tremendous honor.” Asked by Billboard if this was the first year of his own multi-year reign as festival host, Lopez laughed and said, “I’ll get my report card on Monday.”

Beforehand, Hefner briefly reminisced about the festival’s 35 years. “Where do the years go?” he said, noting the original intent was a one-off concert in Chicago. “Looking out from the stage today I thought, ’35 years later and we’re still here. It’s phenomenal.’”

The sold-out first day offered up such highlights as the Pedrito Martinez Group, making its festival debut. Martinez, a founding member of Afro-Cuban band Yerba Buena, got the crowd going with a mix of original songs and a Latin twist on the Jackson Five hit “I’ll Be There.” Grammy nominee Gregory Porter elicited a host of “who the hell is he?” comments during his attention-grabbing festival debut, thanks to his mesmerizing vocals and organic mix of jazz, blues, R&B, and gospel. Signed to Blue Note after two indie albums, Porter is readying his September debut, Liquid Spirit.

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Asked backstage if he was nervous about signing with a major label, he said. “There could have been some fear like what will they do, try to clean me up or something? But all the powers at Blue Note said do what you do. Keep writing and be you.” He describes Liquid Spirit as 10 original songs seeking the musical “release of pent-up energy flowing from culture, the soul, the spirit.”

Saturday’s additional standouts included the Robert Glasper Experience with surprise special guest Dianne Reeves; an exuberant Angelique Kidjo accompanied by the still-commanding trumpet master Hugh Masekela, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band with jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour and singer Judith Hill, and Naturally 7. Back for their third fest stint in four years with special guest Herbie Hancock, the a cappella group kept the audience enthralled with its killer vocal dexterity. George Duke and Jeffrey Osborne closed the evening, igniting the crowd with their respective hits (“Sweet Baby,” “Love Ballad”) and a mini-funk revival with songs by James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic.

Revving up a more laid-back Sunday audience was an energetic set by Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Shorty told Billboard backstage that his third Verve album, due in September, is being produced by Raphael Saadiq and will feature the original members of the Meters. “They haven’t played together for maybe 25 years,” said an enthusiastic Shorty, “It was exciting.”

Rounding out the Father’s Day Playboy lineup were Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (paying tribute to late jazz icon Dave Brubeck), festival first-timer Taj Mahal, a salute to Quincy Jones’ 80th birthday by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Bob James and David Sanborn, India.Arie (playing songs from her June 25 release SongVersation) and the always-spirited Sheila E.  Among those spotted at the fest: BET music programming chief Stephen Hill and Hidden Beach Recordings CEO Steve McKeever.


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