03/13/12

Herbie Hancock at the Kennedy Center

The keys legend brings an electric hit parade to D.C.

Keyboardist, composer and bandleader Herbie Hancock, 71, has one of the best and rarest predicaments a jazz musician—or, for that matter, any musician—can have. He has a half-century’s worth of indelible material to try to represent within the span of a two-hour live show. Many jazz greats have a signature sound, a trademark instrumental voice that they’re required to deliver in concert. Hancock has that too, but he also harbors the stuff of pop eminence: melodies that a mainstream audience knows by heart; electronic textures that recall distinct eras in commercial music; even a groundbreaking music video that saw heavy rotation on MTV.

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Kwaku Alston

Herbie Hancock

Stereotypes dictate that such popular triumphs would be a serious jazz artist’s affliction, but pretension and contrarianism aren’t what made Hancock successful in the first place. He is one of jazz’s most accessible innovators: much of his most important work, whether acoustic or electric, has succeeded equally by critical and commercial standards.

So he should be forgiven for giving too many "hits" away at Sunday night’s sold-out Kennedy Center performance, which was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Simply put, the program was a best-of compilation brought to life: “Actual Proof,” “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Chameleon” and even “Rockit” were all present and accounted for. There are ’70s rock acts touring the fairground circuit that put together less predictable set lists.

I’m being facetious, and a bit unfair, since most of his classics were willfully reinvented via deft arranging and heavyweight improvising. It was a brisk and satisfying two hours—not least because of the bandleader’s infectiously affable demeanor, which makes him easy to root for. Onstage, Hancock—who played acoustic piano, keyboards and keytar, often switching between them mid-tune—is a talker. He enthusiastically put you inside his head, with jokes and asides and explanations of his tunes, like liner notes in real time. And he marveled at his musicians—guitarist Lionel Loueke, electric bassist James Genus and hard-hitting drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr.—with an almost paternal pride.

That pride was warranted. Hancock led a sort of virtuosic, postmodern fusion combo; its leanness, loudness and lack of vocalists (Hancock had two on his River tour) gave it a rawness, an air of authenticity. “Actual Proof” was nailed—its clavinet-punctuated groove set to a perfect simmer, its bluesy unison themes executed with precision. (That opener also saw the mix, boomy in the orchestral concert hall, come into focus.) The set became a counting man’s game on a mash-up of “Watermelon Man” and Loueke’s 17/4 composition “Seven Teens.” Hancock, on keytar, traded with Genus (employing an octavizer) and Loueke, who was prodded into some of his flashiest playing of the evening. It effectively contrasted the "Watermelon" theme, which Hancock and Loueke subdued to a whisper. (Loueke, who was later given a solo showcase for his electronically harmonized vocals and kalimba-like guitar sound, was his usual self elsewhere—singular and accomplished but understated to a fault.) In all, this twofer arrangement was an exceedingly creative way to reinvigorate an overexposed melody. “Cantaloupe Island” received a similarly inspired transformation, moving between postbop and fusion and allowing Hancock to reiterate his brilliance on acoustic piano.

In other moments, Hancock inadvertently made a point about the nature of trends in pop sonics—about how what’s old can become new. Instead of sounding dated, the synths of “4 A.M.” and, especially, the vocoder of “Come Running to Me” brought to mind Auto-Tuned neo-soul as well as hip-hop-generation jazz musicians whose current work is so deeply influenced by Hancock. (Some keyboard-activated vocal samples heard later—shouts and grunts which awkwardly summoned up late ’80s/early ’90s pop-rap—didn’t fare as well.)

The encore included “Rockit,” with Lawrence on drum machine and Hancock on keytar, and a blowout on “Chameleon” in which Hancock (and Hancock alone) soloed among his arsenal of keys at jam-band length. It was a lot of fun, but it made you think about the deeper cuts you wished you would have heard.

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