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  • Jonathan Widran


The 40th Anniversary of the Playboy Jazz Festival was also the first festival without the physical presence of its founder Hugh Hefner. Whatever one makes of his overall cultural legacy, there’s no question that while he rests eternally next to Marilyn Monroe a few miles away in Westwood, one of the greatest gifts his fortune, influence and passion gave the world carried on quite well at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday June 9, the first day of this year’s event.

One of the day’s most compelling and highly anticipated ensembles, The Miles Electric Band, had the honor of providing the subtle, simmering soundtrack to the toast Hef’s son Cooper made to his dad and the montage of photos and film clips of his life. Prior to that, the 11 piece group – led by Miles Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr. on drums, the vibrantly dressed “MonoNEON” on bass and the brilliant Jeremy Pelt on trumpet – celebrated Miles’s fusion period over the course of 50 crazy, adventurous minutes. Like the legend himself during this offbeat era of his career, the group ventured down many experimental, trippy, sometimes cacophonous, synth driven space age paths, complete with exciting turntabling (by “DJ Hapa”). But they also took a moment to reflect Miles’ gently melodic pop side on a beautifully rendered cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time.”

Unlike most jazz festivals that focus on only one vibe (smooth, traditional, big band, world fusion, blues), Playboy Jazz is renowned for its eclecticism and had something for everyone’s tastes yet again this year. One of the “settling into your seats” acts – i.e. coming too early on the bill to be fully appreciated by the whole crowd – was Bogota-based Monsieur Perine, whose sensual, high energy lead singer Catalina Garcia led her ensemble through a festive mix of French pop, cumbia, salsa and Gypsy jazz a la Django Reinhardt. Another Bogota based musician, harpist Edmar Castaneda, showcased the multitude of tones his instrument is capable of, infusing his infectious, highly improvisational tunes (some featuring Swiss harmonica master Gregoire Maret) with a deep spirituality.

The global fusion magic continued with the feisty Cuban spitfire vocalist and dancer Dayme Arocena, all decked out in white (including a turban) who mixed playful call and response moments into her mix of Afro-Cuban and New Orleans fun. The fiery, electric guitar and horn driven jam band collective Snarky Puppy marked its 15 year anniversary with a set loaded with deep soul and fresh, funky sizzle, while charismatic, stylishly dressed closer Anthony Hamilton, a contemporary R&B giant got everyone up swaying and dancing to the throwback vibes of tunes like “So in Love,” the 2011 hit he had with Jill Scott.

Yet for all those great moments, all I kept thinking when I was leaving after a long day in the music-soaked sun was how cool it is that the most memorable music came from the youngest and oldest performers. I had never heard of 17-year-old Hammond B-3 and groove piano sensation Matthew Whitaker, but he’s on my radar big time now after a spirited, wildly soulful and ultra-funky (nearly danceable!) set with his trio of Edward Morcaldi III (guitar, bass) and Sipho Kunene (drums).

Three performances into the day, he got the party started, switching effortlessly between keyboards on a mix of originals, the pop/soul classics “More Today Than Yesterday” and “September” and Brazilian evergreen “Mas Que Nada.” Perhaps the first performer at the festival to be born in this century, Whitaker for all his effortlessness and mastery seemed genuinely grateful for the opportunity to play on such a prestigious stage.

And then there were the octogenarians, one a longtime favorite (keyboardist and film composing legend Dave Grusin) and one somewhat lesser known to me but who has my heart, soul and attention now, guitarist and singer Roy Gaines. Grusin jammed amiably with longtime collaborator and equally famed guitar great Lee Ritenour, creating roaring synth runs and intimate piano moments on funky faves and a lush rendition of “Stolen Moments.”

In the middle of the set, Grusin took a moment to wish all the June babies (including me and him) a Happy Birthday and played a cool, jazzy bluesy solo piano arrangement of “Happy Birthday.” His and Rit’s deft as always ensemble work and exciting soloing, bassist Melvin Davis stole the show with his own deep solo cool, breezy scat and a spot on imitation of the late great Al Jarreau. Great also to hear Rit’s son Wes (named after his dad’s hero Mr. Montgomery) anchor everything so tightly on drums.

Hats off also to Gaines, the day’s other 83 year old wunderkind, Roy Gaines, who, to paraphrase George Clinton, blew the roof off the sucka (yes that can happen even in the open air of summertime!) with his crisp, slick guitar fire and guttural vocals on familiar blues classics like “Going to Chicago” and “Low Down and Dirty” – buoyed often by the simmering and rising excitement of his tenacious, swinging ensemble, Orchestra Tuxedo Blues.

In addition to keeping the Playboy Jazz Festival going till death do us part, my prayer to the Universe is that it keeps ageless greats like Grusin and Gaines around, engaging our senses and exciting us, as long as possible – and continues to remind us that young people like Whitaker will be there to pick up the creative slack when their time comes. Hef’s gone but the celebration of the timelessness and diversity of jazz and all the good it brings the world lives on…

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