Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove The Kimmel Center (Verizon Hall) Philadelphia, PA February 23, 2005
It could be said with some justification that Herbie Hancock is the world's greatest jazz pianist. Certainly, at the very least, he challenged the limits of technical virtuosity and musical expression at his Kimmel Center Mellon Jazz Festival performance with Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove. Equipped with a grand piano and an array of synthesizers, Hancock led the group, which also included Scott Colley on bass and Terri Lyne Harrington on drums (substituting for John Patitucci and Brian Blade respectively), to the upper stratosphere of jazz, combining complex sound effects and synthesized instrumentation with a straight ahead feel on the acoustic instruments to create a memorable intensity and expressiveness that led to a standing ovation and several encores.
The concert was one of a world tour based on the Grammy award-winning CD, "Directions in Music: Celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane." Hancock is going all out to bring his many years of music-making to a heady climax combining everything he has acquired in performances, film-making, and producing during his extraordinary career. On this particular night, he put together a concert that brought together "not less than everything" into a virtuosic ensemble effect that was delightfully exhausting, relentlessly pushing the musical envelope.
The musical approach itself was, however, conservative, an expansion of the solid base that Hancock has developed over the years, rather than a new or different "direction" for him. As he initiated the evening with a synthesizer effect on his original composition, "Dolphin Dance," I thought he might be going for a radically new approach. But what emerged was a recapitulation of hard bop and jazz fusion that brought Hancock into the center of jazz in the 1960's and 1970's. The group took the "Hancock effect" as far as it could go, and the synthesizers were used to elaborate by now traditional sounds and moods rather than to create a new musical form.
The references to Miles Davis (on the CD title, but omitted in the program notes) were evident from the very beginning in Hargrove's soulful playing and "conversational" use of smoky, brilliant, and lyrical sonorities reminiscent of Davis during his period with Gil Evans. The allusions to Coltrane were initially more subtle, for example in a complex passage that reminded me of Coltrane's later "Meditations." Towards the end of the evening, however, Brecker's tenor sax took on the feel of Trane's "sheets of sound," as he moved around the sax with Coltrane-like agility, re-capturing the Master's uplifting feeling of a southern preacher "telling it like it is." Brecker, a native Philadelphian, is known as a virtuoso and ground-breaker. In this concert, while all the musicians performed beautifully, Brecker's solos did seem to stand out above the crowd. Brecker's centrality in this event was also manifest in his doing a brief talk at midstream, in place of an intermission (Hancock didn't speak at all, for some reason), and then performing a wild solo piece on a synthesizer device that looked like a weapon from Star Wars and which repeated and transformed whatever he blew into it into a kaleidoscope of sounds that partly "aped" Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and partly passed for "New Age" jazz, if there could be such a thing.
A further effect offered by the synthesizers at certain junctures was to provide a feeling of motion picture soundtracks. In 1958, Art Blakey led a group that recorded the soundtrack for a film, "Les Femmes Disparaissent," and in that same year Oscar Peterson and associates did the musical backdrop for another film from France, "Les Tricheurs." The soft "francais" blues effects captured on these soundtracks occasionally were evoked during the performance of the Hancock group.
A question that occurred to me during the concert was whether the group was simply making a "joyful noise" with the new sounds available to them, or getting deep and down with genuine musical expression. I came to the conclusion that, on the whole, they did achieve artistic, creative expression, even while blowing all over the place. Roy Hargrove's playing had moments of subtle emotion that highlighted the expressive aspect, and Hancock's work on the piano grew more and more confident throughout the evening, echoing aspects of his fabulous early Blue Note recordings. Hancock's sheer virtuosity has never been better, and the pianistic energy that is uniquely and simply "Herbie" was thrilling to hear once again.