Enjoy Jazz Festival: Heidelberg / Mannheim / Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 30-November 7, 2012
In recent years, Herbie Hancock has been touring shows leaning more heavily to the pop side of his music, in particular the pianist's recent The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock, 2010). So it's easy to forget what a cutting edge artist he has been throughout his career, whether it was with trumpeter Miles Davis' much-lauded second great quintet of the 1960s, or in his own groups, like the acoustic quintet responsible for the classsic Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965), or the electrified ensembles documented on the funky Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) and prescient techno album Future Shock (Columbia, 1983).
For his Enjoy Jazz performance, Hancock dispensed with a group altogether, instead surrounding himself with a wealth of technologysynthesizers, Keytar, five iPads, two computers and morethough there was still a wonderful old grand piano, provided by the venue, Ludwigshafen's BASF-Feierabendhaus. It should be noted, too, that while BASF has been supporting Enjoy Jazz for seven years, it is far more than that (though, truthfully, its sponsorship would suffice). Instead, the company provides venues for shows, puts artists up in its own hotel; all-in-all a very friendly arrangement that exemplifies the way Enjoy Jazz conducts its business.
Hancock entered the stage to tremendous applause, and opened with a largely improvised acoustic excursion (but not entirely; there was a lengthy chart on the piano) based on Shorter's well-known "Footprints," though Hancock's greater abstractions made it barely recognizable, beyond the occasional reiteration of part of its familiar theme. Still, it boded well for an evening tagged Plugged In: A Night of Solo Exploration. As Hancock continued on acoustic piano for a second piece, the Plugged In part began to seep in, with first the sound of a marimba, then a processed bass drum entering the picture. As the piece developed, it turned truly orchestral, with strings, percussion and more expanding the overall soundscape.
It was after these two piecesthirty-five minutes into the setthat Hancock first spoke to the audience, explaining the process: "The first piece was, of course, 'Footprints,' but I didn't stick to the form. Composers like Beethoven and Ravel, they figured out the form as they went along; they didn't just stick with two bars. So why did I not stick to form? Because I'm composing; because I don't need to. There's no bassist and no drummer, which gives me a lot of freedom. But," he said, chuckling, "with freedom comes a lot of responsibility."
Hancock, continued with a piece that featured orchestral arrangements by keyboardist George Whitty, moving into a version of "Maiden Voyage," which he introduced by saying "What do you think, if I want to use some of these things up here," pointing to the gear nearly filling the stage. "Five ipads, two computers, five keyboards and other stuff you can't see. It's an experiment. I'd like to take 'Maiden Voyage,' I'll do the form but then I'll make up my own form; and I'll play some of these things in it. It's scary, so I'm gonna start off on acoustic piano, and we'll see how things go."
Strapping on a headset which allowed him to trigger a vocoder, Hancock moved very gradually into the form of "Maiden Voyage," but when the theme finally emerged, it was in an entirely different context than the original. Calm and quiet, even as string synth was added and the piece opened up even further, Hancock abandoned his piano for synth and a more electro-centric pulse, despite the chordal underpinning remaining elegiac as he began to sing the song's theme, albeit massively processed and harmonized.
Hancock has always been on the technological cutting edge, to be sure, but at a time when so many young artists have seamlessly meshed electronics with acoustic instrumentation, Hancock may have been a trendsetter but he's no longer a groundbreaker. Instead, with his between-song patter and choice of material, this was more entertaining than profoundand good entertainment it most certainly was. He finally strapped on the Keytar that had been onstage for the entire set, and moved into a piece built on rhythmic, chordal and harmonic loops, but quickly deserted it again for acoustic piano, entering into a funkified version of "Cantaloupe Island" that closed the set on a high note, moving back to center stage with his Keytar and triggering a series of vocal samples.
To be sure, Hancock lost some of his audiencethose who were, perhaps, expecting something more experimentalbut the majority remained, and was enthusiastic throughout, fervently demanding an encore when the set was over. Hancock returned for another Keytar-driven piece, this time a medley of "Rockit" and "Chameleon," and if he no longer seems interested in setting new trends and breaking new ground, Hancock proved, at his Enjoy Jazz performance, that he was, indeed, capable of putting on a show that was compelling enough, musically, and high on the entertainment scaleand there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.