REVIEW: Herbie Hancock at the Barbican (2017 EFG LJF)

His piano playing "one of the many beguiling textures"
Herbie Hancock at Bridgewater Hall
Photo credit: William Ellis

Herbie Hancock
(Barbican Centre, 13 November 2017. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)

Herbie Hancock’s music has come full circle. Multi-instrumentalist and record producer Terrace Martin recently said: "…it would be impossible to do anything I’ve ever done without a Herbie Hancock." (Martin produced Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly.) Hancock has repaid the compliment by getting Martin into his latest band, to take his own music in a new direction - the way Hancock’s mentor Miles Davis did with young musicians.

Martin opened with synth eddies and space age sounds, his vocals bringing to mind Hancock’s pioneering work with the vocoder in the '70s. A long funk groove was propelled from the front of the stage by James Genus on 5-string electric bass (the computer keeps correcting his name to ‘genius’, and quite rightly). At times he closed his eyes and focused totally on one note. Further back on stage, Hancock seemed to be leading from behind, especially as the piano seemed a little quiet in the mix, but soon I stopped expecting to hear the piano as the lead instrument. It became one of the many beguiling textures, bringing a sweetness to Martin’s acute-angled saxophone solo.

An exquisite solo piano interlude led us to a passing flutter of Butterfly. Hancock’s piano stayed serene, then spilled irrepressibly out into the centre of the storm created by Trevor Lawrence’s surprisingly emotive drumming. Lawrence brought an R&B feel to the gig, creating rhythmic suspense across the beat, then settling into the massive grooves of Chameleon.

In Actual Proof from 1974’s Thrust, Hancock swivelled between keyboard and piano, visually representing his two sides: the cool funkster and the lyrical, classically-influenced pianist. The piano solo built to an almost unbearable intensity, then fell into a Ligeti and Liszt-like shimmer of notes. The notes of Genus’ fine solo popped and danced among the big back beats. A sudden rush of cymbals in Lawrence’s solo was carefully framed by Hancock’s synth sounds.

Hancock has often worked with singers, from Joni Mitchell to Pink (on his Imagine Project). Tonight he sang through the vocoder himself on Come Running to Me (as he did on his 1978 Sunlight LP). The elegant melody soared in a tingling falsetto worthy of Dhafer Youssef, harmonised by Martin’s vocals. Hancock’s piano found a groove on one note then broke out into fresh, lovely phrases. He made percussive vocal noises like a jaw harp, before pushing a piano riff to its limits and over into wild runs. A darker piece with a knotty time signature had Hancock bending keyboard sounds like a Moog synth, swapping with his own piano and Martin’s distorted vocals, over a slow grungy beat. Hancock took up his great white keytar to trade free, biting licks with Martin’s hard-edged alto, pushing each other into more abstract improvisations.

They brought the audience back on to familiar ground with the opening chords of Cantaloupe Island, but with a hip-hop feel. Hancock’s piano was an amazing fusion of Romanticism and the old-school R&B that influenced him as a young man. Genus grinned with delight as the piano moved right away from the groove. A funky minor section slid into Watermelon Man, slinkily re-harmonized and re-grooved, unleashing Martin’s tempestuous alto solo. The encore was a reprised Chameleon, Hancock on keytar playing bluesy phrases with a taut timing that made you sit forward so as not to miss a single note. At 77, he was still leaping into the air like a rock guitarist, getting us all to sing along to his riffs.

The full house was on its feet, applauding not just this gig but the decades that Herbie Hancock has brought to jazz. He pushed attention away from himself, and on to his band. "I like to discover new rules so I can break them," he told the Guardian this week. His music is always moving forward, and this superb band is helping him do just that.

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