07/03/08

Herbie Hancock at JVC - New York

A Herbie Hancock performance will never be insignificant, but this JVC Jazz Festival showcase, coming on the heels of the pianist’s Grammy upset for River: The Joni Letters, seemed to carry additional meaning. Here we have a living jazz master who has crashed the gates of pop music for the umpteenth time since the ’70s, beating out Amy Winehouse and Kanye West—an unthinkable mainstream plaudit for an album of high-jazz sophistication, his best in years. Again and again, the River Grammy is being cited as evidence of newfound marketplace respect for jazz. So, what sounds would Herbie bring to Carnegie Hall? We’d find out in time. But first, guitarist Lionel Loueke, a member of Hancock’s touring band, warmed up the crowd with a trio set, playing music from his Blue Note debut, Karibu.

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Johanna Goodman

Herbie Hancock

Loueke, from Benin, has come to epitomize jazz internationalism in the ’00s. So has his entire trio, with Italian/Swedish bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth, both of whom have released impressive records in recent months (Persona and Night Songs, respectively). Loueke’s absorption of the Brazilian acoustic fingerstyle tradition, and his blending of West African folkloric song with a distinctly Hancock-ian approach to extended jazz harmony, has empowered him to make highly individualized music, as complex as it is accessible. The perennial problem in Carnegie Hall is how to get across this kind of a sound, which, for all its texture and subtlety, relies on amplification. A room designed for 19th-century orchestras doesn’t always take well to drum sets and Fender Twins.

Leading off with “Benny’s Tune,” Loueke and the trio made the right move by keeping quiet, letting the tight, irregular rhythms build their own intensity. Here and on the closing “Nonvignon,” Loueke sang in his native Fon, layering harmonies and percussive clicking sounds and using the guitar almost as an add-on. One could call it a one-man-band effect, though this suggests hollow trickery. What Loueke played was certainly dexterous, but more to the point, it was enveloping, full of momentum, musical from bottom to top. Some of the detail in the crescendos of “Light Dark” and “Nonvignon” got lost in the big hall, but thankfully, Hancock’s guest appearance on “Seven Teens” was resonant and full of fire—a taste, perhaps, of what was to come in the second half.

The JVC festival was one stop on Hancock’s “River of Possibilities” tour, named for not only his Grammy-winning disc but also his less-inspired outing of 2005. While there was no doubting the strength of his road band (Loueke, Dave Holland on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Chris Potter on tenor sax), the Carnegie Hall set proved wildly uneven. Vocalists Sonya Kitchell and Amy Keys stood in for Hancock’s panoply of famed recent collaborators, but the show began with a full-on fusion instrumental: “Actual Proof” from the 1975 album Flood. Holland played electric bass—truly a rarity—and Hancock chose from among a gorgeous Fazioli grand piano and a bank of electro-keys. The volume was high, the acoustics unforgiving.

Then came a radical shift, as the singers harmonized pleasantly enough on Joni Mitchell’s “River” and belted out “When Love Comes to Town,” the Jonny Lang-Joss Stone feature from Possibilities, which sounded like a bar-band throwaway in this context. “All I Want,” the only other Joni Mitchell song of the set, showcased the 19-year-old Kitchell, whose loose, dusky phrasing, breathy timbre and labored ad-libbing in the outro fell short of a knockout. (Colaiuta flubbed the ending.) Keys, a backup singer for k.d. lang and Phil Collins, mopped the floor with Kitchell on her own solo feature, “A Song for You” by Leon Russell.

In Hancock’s work, of course, “river of possibilities” could well refer to the brilliant harmonic invention that he brings to even the simplest vamps. The show didn’t disappoint there, and each band member had his stirring moments. Holland took the floor for an unaccompanied upright-bass solo, which Hancock joined before offering his own meditation on “Maiden Voyage,” the theme of which emerged over a gradual span—true creative magic.

“Cantaloupe Island,” another tune from Hancock’s Blue Note vault, fared less well. Holland, back on electric bass, looked visibly perturbed as Colaiuta began to drag the tempo. Incredibly, bass and drums failed to agree on the pocket, and one of the most famous grooves in jazz sank into quicksand. Under Potter’s solo, with a few sparse and dissonant chords, Hancock made his desire clear: open up the form as much as possible. But Colaiuta is one of the world’s ultimate structure players. With a rhythm as loose and off-kilter as this, he was all over the road. Relief came when Hancock strapped on his keytar and launched into “Chameleon,” which produced some ripe and adventurous trading between the keyboard, Potter’s tenor and Loueke’s processed electric guitar.

And so ended what amounted to a Hancock retrospective of sorts. There were flickers of genius, and the genre-blurring served as a reminder of Hancock’s towering influence on music across the board (without his historic contributions, would a Mos Def or Jill Scott appearance at the JVC Jazz Festival be conceivable?). Still, there was a lingering feeling that this star-laden ensemble never arrived at the heart of the matter.

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