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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

According to the marquee, the program bringing a well-dressed horde out to the Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, Va., was Herbie Hancock’s “Gershwin’s World,” the world premiere of a Hancock’s first official live orchestra project (which will work its way to summer shows at the Ravinia Festival, the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere).

Advertising, though, was a little on the false side. Hancock, a Buddhist and a musician with a catholic jazz ethos, took the fitting title of his Grammy-winning 1998 Gershwin tribute album and freely broadened the program’s scope, mixing in a handful of Gershwin pieces with his own as well as the music of Ellington, W.C. Handy, Hoagy Carmichael, Wayne Shorter’s epigrammatic jewel “Nefertiti.”

Call it, then, “Hancock’s World,” orchestral style. Whatever the handle, the project’s first iteration, arranged and conducted by the gifted orchestral thinker Robert Sadin (with additional orchestrations by Klaus Muller) was, if not a complete and coherent success, a rousing first step that will no doubt be subject to change and refinement. But not too much refinement: Hancock’s magic, in his sixth decade as much as ever before, is all about his blend of rough and roguish charm with sophistication, which extends back to his classical training at a young prodigy in Chicago.

Context-hopping idealism is at the core of this project, here with the game and admirable Virginia Symphony in the orchestral role. In the jazz corner, bassist-of-choice Scott Colley and the impressive 19-year-old drummer Richie Barshay joined Hancock. Barshay, a player to watch, seemed to do all the right things this night, mixing subtlety and heat in the right measure.

Opening with some rather bloated orchestrations of Bach was a strange move, and was presumably used as a framing device for the jazz-cum-classical endeavor and an appeal for concert music cred. But the jazz muse got busy as soon as Hancock came to the piano, launching into an intense and querulous take on “Fascinating Rhythm,” its melody alluded to only in passing, and fascinating orchestral colors splashed around Hancock’s antic piano outing. Strings laid out the gorgeous melody of Gershwin’s “Lullaby,” one of the album’s highlights, only to have Hancock change its sonic palette with a reharmonized treatment, an injection of terse, modern introspection.

Hancock was insistent on clarifying, in advance press and on the microphone at the premiere, that he knows Gershwin’s context in the musical realm vis-à-vis jazz. “Gershwin didn’t invent jazz,” he told the crowd. “In a way, jazz invented Gershwin.” They then launched into some essential Ellingtonia, a cleverly reworked version of “Cottontail” for the trio, and a rather smarmy, orchestra-rich take on “Solitude.” The edges were rougher, but the excitement higher, in a strangely cubistlike reading of “St. Louis Blues.”

The program’s variations on Hancock’s own themes traversed different corners of his musical evolution. Cross-cultural impressionism, with a meandering key center and feathery string textures, effectively poeticized Hancock’s “Interlude From Rain Forest,” while his classic “Maiden Voyage” was beautifully complemented by the orchestral presence, veering from soft syncopations to vaporous washes. The orchestra even grooved and swung on Sadin’s fresh spin on Hancock’s Headhunters-era tune, “Actual Proof,” with the funk undertow fortified, not softened, by the orchestral ranks.

Shorter’s “Nefertiti” accounted for the most hypnotic moment of the concert. Its naturally loopy structure was given added dreamtime component by Sadin’s scheme of wrapping the odd, circular melody in canonical patterns and shifting orchestral textures. Questions of “where’s the one?” and “what’s the key?” emerged, again, as purely rhetorical. They were musical Zen koans. One of the most haunting tracks from the indisputably great mid-’60s Miles Davis Quintet oeuvre, “Nefertiti” in these orchestral clothes became an inventive revisitation, one that Shorter would probably appreciate.

Hancock reportedly threw “Georgia on My Mind” into the mix as a nod to another of his heroes, Ray Charles, and this brilliant version ranged from bubbly rhythms to loose melodic statements. The pianist dipped, respectfully and honestly, deep into the soul-riff bag on his solo. For an encore, Hancock retraced his own illustrious past again, in a present-tense way, giving us a version of “Dolphin Dance” with an unusually lyrical, reflective approach. “Hancock’s World” closed on a gentle note, a suitable touch of historical reconsideration for an evening full of the same.

If there were a few shaky moments in the necessarily loose communication between jazz and classical components this night, Hancock’s pianism was dead-on. His playing remains a musical wonder, never quite predictable or locked into the language of his devising. And he’s in good hands with Sadin at the podium, an obvious Hancock fan who is also eager and able to take another stab at the rarely conquered challenge of bringing jazz and classical tradition together. Those worlds still eye each other warily, with suspicion and envy, over the fence. Can’t we all just get along?

Originally Published