With a capacity crowd waiting at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts on March 28, Herbie Hancock was in no hurry to start playing. For several minutes, he stood on stage as his bandmates settled in around him, peppering them and his audience with bits of joking banter. "I heard this was a private party," he quipped, scanning the sea of expectant faces. In a way, it was. The event was a sidebar to the SFJAZZ Spring Season, a members-only affair organized to thank the San Francisco Jazz Organization?s year-round supporters.
Hancock announced the first song as "Dolphin Dance II," a reimagining of themes from his classic composition (the original "Dolphin Dance" first appeared on 1965?s Maiden Voyage album). How complete was this reimagining? "If you recognize anything," warned Hancock, "then we?ve failed." They did not fail.
For nearly an hour, Hancock and his quartet spun a vast web of ideas in the form of a suite, gliding casually from theme to theme, all branching out from a slow, moody center. Time and again, the music fell back to nothing, then evolved anew from the simplest of origins solo piano, notes rippling like raindrops into pulsing grooves of abstract yet highly focused bop.
Hancock, using a discreet earpiece instead of on-stage monitor speakers, sat bolt upright at his piano, sometimes leaning back slightly or rocking as he tapped his foot in time. He achieved maximum impact by using his tools sparingly. Little trills and quiet spiraling patterns were employed as often as the bold, stormy statements that launched each fresh assault on the piece.
Drummer Teri Lynne Carrington was in exceptional form, alternately sparring with Hancock and bassist Scott Colley. Constantly shifting her rhythms to match (or define) the moment, Carrington?s concentration was palpable. Whenever she found the pattern she was looking for, a change overtook her face eyes closed, jaw clenched, she appeared to be forcing the rhythm forward through sheer force of will.
In contrast, Colley chose to react rather than instigate. Leaning into his bass, Colley was buffeted about by swirling rhythmic gusts both overt and hidden, snagging tiny fragments on the strings of his bass. His playing fed the others, as when a highly abstract bass break gradually solidified into a dark groove which launched Hancock into a riot of complex clusters, like light shattering in a prism.
Gary Thomas was an island of calm amidst this torrent, even when at its very center. Wearing all black and barely moving, Thomas was the essence of neutrality. He was a medium, channeling raw energy through his tenor saxophone into a tight electric circuit, or floating above the current like an airborne feather.
When, after an hour, the modal theme was restated one last time with an aching slowness, then suspended in silent tension until Hancock let out a chuckle, there seemed little left to say. "Okay, what do we play now?" asked the leader, only half-joking.
There was more, including a multi-phased twenty-minute reconstruction of "St. Louis Blues." But after the near-cathartic experience of his new "Dolphin Dance," all other statements this night seemed superfluous.