Jazz, though far from an outdated art form, has aged long past its first Renaissance. Many of the greats from the old days slowly trod the path of the dinosaur leaving the world with the legacy of swing, bebop, and what we now have come to know as the true American art form. In 2011 alone, 30 renowned jazz musicians passed away (I know, they list 32, but…Nate Dogg and Amy Winehouse? No disrespect intended, but calling them jazz musicians seems like a stretch to me. Do your research, NPR). Getting an opportunity to see a true jazz legend, sadly, grows more and more difficult with each passing year.
So when Claire presented me with two tickets to see Herbie Hancock and his band as my Christmas present, she fully understood my shrieks of excitement in the crowded restaurant where we exchanged gifts. I dubbed that day in March Herbie Day and took the day off.
Herbie is, with very few exceptions, a musician I would have chosen to see even if I had the power to resurrect and de-zombify any deceased musician (which is really saying a lot considering the length of that particular list). Few musicians, in the jazz world or otherwise, still innovate, experiment, and push the boundaries of what is possible to the extent that he does.
Needless to say, expectations were ridiculously high. And don’t you just love it when ridiculously high expectations are utterly shattered by the real thing?
Despite winning 14 Grammies and Academy Award over the length of a remarkable career, Herbie (whom I shall address as such even though we currently are not on a first name basis. From what I can tell about the type of person he is, I honestly don’t think he would mind) waves his bragging rights in favor of gushing about his band: “I have this habit of hanging out with superior musicians,” he gushes, and he seems to really believe it, even sporting some nerd-cred by referring to himself as a Green Hornet amongst three Katos.
Indeed, he has assembled an equally humble dream team: bassist James Genus of the Saturday Night Live Band, renown R&B drummer Trevor Lawrence, and up-and-coming West African guitarist Lionel Lueke all look like they can’t believe their luck at who their boss is. But, as they would prove beyond any shadow of a doubt, luck had little to do with it.
Lawrence takes the stage first, immediately sparking up an agressive combo of kick drum and snare for their opening tune Actual Proof. He skillfully establishes the groove, juggling elements of samba, funk, and even a little metal. Genus soon emerges, mirroring the the rapid drive of the kick drum with a chromatic bass line. Loueke followed soon after and, strangely, added a layer that seemed to clash with what his bandmates had started. The tune took a turn into discord and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, worried about what would happen next.
Herbie finally emerged, briefly acknowledged the audience, and took his place behind the sythesizer. And then…sorcery. With the skill only masters possess, he produced an entirely new groove and the band immediately latched on to and ran with. Lawrence dissassembled and reconstructed his drum lines like they were Legos. Loueke slashed impressively complex riffs in parallel octaves. Genus, whose face might as well have been painted with a permanent ear-to-ear grin for the entirety of the evening, fingered his six-string bass with the deftness of Yo-Yo Ma. All was right with the universe once again.
Next came Watermelon Man, a funk standard from the book of Herbie. The subdued pace of this song was a nice transition, plus it allowed Herbie to bust out the keytar. His standard rapid-fire riffs were now accented with squeaks and squeals as he moved to the front of the stage. He got several laughs from the crowd when he challenged Loueke and Genus to a musical game of Simon Says.
In my humble opinion, the highlight of the concert surprisingly didn’t come from Herbie. The band was just finishing Come Running to Me, another standard in which Herbie sings into a vocoder (an auto-tuned microphone played through a keyboard). One by one, the band members wandered offstage until only Loueke remained. The lone guitarist began weaving a complex African drum beat by using an effect pedal that made his guitar imitate a kalimba. Soon he began to sing in an unfamiliar tribal language, likely from his native Benin. And it turned out he wasn’t the only one with a vocoder.
What resulted was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, and I have listened to some strange stuff. Complete with percussive tongue- clicks, demonic voices and–I’m not sure how to describe this other than the sound you make when you relax you facial muscles and shake your head side to side really fast. Soon the exotic language dissolved into English: “Come running to me.” The entire auditorium listened with dumbstruck looks on their faces. After he had finished and received a standing ovation from the audience, Herbie reappeared on stage, embraced Loueke, turned to the audience and said what we were all thinking: “How is that even possible?”
Loueke took another bow and revealed that his creation was entitled Ifê ( roughly pronounced “ee-fay”). I desperately wish I could find a demo to post here, but it looks like I’ll have to wait with the rest of the world until August when he releases his new record Heritage. More on this soon.
Herbie sat down at the piano and uttered the best line of the evening: “I have no idea what I’m going to play right now.” He struck a few chords, then improvised a dark, brooding melody that tinged with influences of Debussy and Stravinsky, punctuated by Herbie’s signature tangential wandering. Just another unique, unexpected and moving direction in the emotional journey that he was leading.
If you’re still reading, you’re either a fellow fan or a real trooper. Thanks in either case. I know Herbie’s wildly experimental approach to music isn’t for everyone. Even for a jazz musician, he’s out on the fringes of musical possibility, constantly testing and pushing the boundaries. That’s bound to make people uncomfortable, but discomfort isn’t always bad. I occasionally hear people generalize about musicians and genres they dislike and will never listen to under any circumstances. I feel sorry for people who limit their views like that because they cheat themselves out of amazing experiences and don’t even know it.