"The Roots, the Roots, the Roots are on fire!"
That one chant could be heard above the audience roar during the Roots' closing set on the opening night of the 33rd annual Playboy Jazz Festival (June 11-12). Making their festival debut, the acclaimed band (a.k.a. Jimmy Fallon's house band) kept the capacity crowd on its feet while ripping through an energetic performance that included "You Got Me" and an especially rousing take on the Gil Scott-Heron classic "The Bottle" featuring trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
Talking to Billboard in the band's dressing room bathroom backstage before the show, drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson said the band was initially "shocked that they wanted us to headline. But we're just going to do our average Roots show‹which for us is our A-game."
Currently on hiatus from "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," the Roots are gearing up for a June 22 date at New York City's The Blue Note as part of the first annual Blue Note Jazz Festival (through June 30 at various area clubs). Then on July 4 the Roots will appear at the July 4 Wawa Welcome America! Festival on their native Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway. The band will perform their own set and then back a lineup that includes Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald, Sara Bareilles, Estelle and, adds ?uestlove, some "surprise elements."
In terms of recording projects, the Roots are working with Betty Wright, Joe Jackson and Christian McBride before finishing up their 13th album, slated for release in November on Def Jam.
In addition to the Roots, the Playboy Jazz Festival's opening day offered such crowd-pleasers as Dianne Reeves, Fourplay, the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra and A Night in Treme: the Musical Majesty of New Orleans featuring the Rebirth Brass Band. Capping the second day's lineup were vocal group Naturally 7, back for its second consecutive appearance and several standing ovations, and Buddy Guy who, at 74 years young, showed no signs of slowing down. Joining him onstage was his 12-year-old guitar protégé Quinn Sullivan, who earned a standing ovation as well.
Also turning in memorable performances were Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela, Fred Wesley and others participating in an African tribute to James Brown and Harmony 3 comprised of Ronnie Laws, Walter Beasley and Stanley Jordan. Bill Cosby once again returned as host.
Backstage, festival co-founder Hugh Hefner talked about the importance of celebrating jazz as the "true American art form," noting that Bix Beiderbecke and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong are the "music of the mansion." He added that he'll be doing voiceovers on the new NBC television drama "The Playboy Club," which premieres this fall on Monday evenings.
"The show is going to capture the sense of that magic time of the '60s," said Hefner, who recently reopened the Playboy Club in London and is getting married on June 18. "And music will play a big part of it." Further describing the show as "'Mad Men with bunnies," the 85-year-old noted to laughter, "You can't go wrong with that."