True to his word, Herbie Hancock is not content to play it straight. He likes expressing music in a different way, even his classic music. He doesn't like to be bored by sameness and stale musical concepts, and that was exemplified in his October 29 concert at The Egg in Albany, NY.
Hancock came with a superb quartet, not his electronic, hip-hop flavored Future 2 Future group, nor the intense and driving acoustic, neo-bop Directions in Music. This Greg Thomas on sax, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and Scott Colley on bass was somewhere in between. It was a flexible group, driven by the percussive talents of Carrington, that could be funky, ethereal, mainstream jazz and avant-garde. Sometimes within the space of seconds.
And through it all was the brilliant piano of one of the true masters of the instrument. Hancock is a virtuoso, but he doesn't often flex his muscles. It's the way he touches the piano. The way he puts down the right chords for others. The way he spews out gorgeous phrases over the right rhythm sometimes he is the rhythm or the projects his ideas into the song's structure, whether tight-knit or loose.
"I'm always looking to create new avenues or new visions of music. I'm always interested in looking forward toward the future. Carving out new ways of looking at things," he told All About Jazz in an interview a week before the concert. He did that, for sure.
On this night, Hancock let the spirits out of the bottle. The music was adventurous, mixed with familiar, but done in a different way. It moved through various style changes seamlessly, each engaging. No boredom here.
He started to explain to the audience that he liked the "different flavors" of music that he has created over the years, jazz, funk, pop, R&B, and those would be on exhibition during the evening. At times he would start to explain what was happening then stop, realizing the music would speak for itself. AT one of those stops, he chuckled and intoned, in a gravelly, hoarse whisper, "I'll play it and tell ya what it is later." Then laughed, remarking that the audience and even his bandmates, all much younger than he, probably didn't get the reference.
(It was a Miles comment caught on tape in Rudy Van Gelder's Prestige recording studio in the 1950s during the recording of Relaxin', with Trane, Philly Joe, Red Garland and Paul Chambers. And he was right; it went over most people's heads).
"Dolphin Dance" opened the show, a long, dreamy piece, which, as he explained, was not going to be the song people knew. Rather, it was a suite that contained thematic elements of the song, but carried many moods, soft, exploring, introspective; then building in intensity into more free-form jazz, then into a funky groove, the deep, gorgeous tone of Colley's bass always in the right place and the rhythms from Carrington flawlessly matching each mood.
Hancock said it was going to segue into "Virtual Hornets" (from Future 2 Future), but it never did. He said the musical conversation went in another direction, and, in the moment, he decided to stay with it and carry it out. Good decision.
"Middle Way," a Carrington composition, was probably the most straight-ahead playing of the night. It didn't shift much from its driving pace and the execution was fine. Close your eyes and you could almost think the angular solo lines from Thomas' tenor sax were Wayne, the rhythms Tony, and the bass Ron Carter; and feel Miles off in the wings, his solo complete, watching Herbie weave his magic over the composition.
"Got a Rhythm," the pianist said, was something based on a few Bill Evans tunes. It was introspective, like Evans, who was one of Hancock's influences, helped by Thomas on flute. But it also changed pace and even got a little funky. The exploration turned away from Evans and weaved nicely into Hancock's hit "Chameleon," which was fairly jazzy, though with some funk spice. Carrington's drums in the soulful beat refused to be hard and rote. They were intricate and interesting while still carrying the soulful vibe of the song.
For much of the night, the music seemed a conversation between Carrington and Hancock, the two speaking back and forth and playing off each other. Where one went, the other could follow. There was a palpable link between them.
Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" was exquisite, much different than other versions. Its changes were fresh and inventive, even unpredictable. There were enough references to let the listener know the tune, but it would go off elsewhere, then return. And the statement of the theme was very soft and had a very different cadence as Thomas and Hancock laid it out. It went into Future 2 Future's "Kebero," a funky escapade, and then came back to "Footprints," culminating in a soft, sweet, aching end.