Herbie Hancock: Quintessential Quintet Live

Jim Worsley BY

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It was a thunderous, sprawling, and intoxicatingly brilliant performance. And that was just the first fifteen minutes of Herbie Hancock's extraordinary concert Wednesday night, March 7, at the Balboa Theater in downtown San Diego, presented by the La Jolla Music Society.

Before introducing his exceptionally talented bandmates, Hancock jokingly told the crowd that he, "didn't want to show up empty handed." There was no danger of that, given Hancock's band consisted of bassist James Genus, guitarist Lionel Loueke, keyboardist and alto saxophonist Terrace Martin, and last, and far from least, all-world drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Hancock told the crowd that only one man can fill the shoes of the drummer atop the mountain of his profession. "And he just happens to be in San Diego tonight." Judging by the level of applause received by Colaiuta that evening, the majority of ticket holders were already well aware of Colaiuta's prowess. He was much deserving in receiving the same level of applause and appreciation as the great Hancock did himself, when he first walked on stage.

Genus pulsated like thunder early on and throughout the opening "Overture." Hancock's arrangements and energized playing created the context for the group, and he offered some fervent interplay with Loueke. Loueke brought an original feel and sound dynamic to the ensemble. Martin's bright sax bursts took the ensemble to intoxicating places, as did the alternating pivots of Martin's sax and Hancock's piano. However, it was Colaiuta's relentless power, precision, skill set, and drive that raised the performance above the ordinary. The "Overture" was worth the price of admission alone.

This was just the first of eight songs that Hancock and his crew played in a nearly two-hour show. If you expected a song to sound just like it did forty years ago, you may have been disappointed. Hancock continues to evolve and move forward. Consequently, many of the arrangements are different and spontaneous. They are bold and fresh sounding. Choosing not to be a relic, Hancock plays in today's world. His arsenal includes synthesizers, vocoders, and other instruments that have become part of today's musical culture.

Through the performance, it was clear that Hancock had given much latitude to his band members to feel free to play and stretch out. They all wisely and beautifully took advantage of that. This was a true quintet performance, in that most of the music was played together as a group. There was some soloing, but it was the collective textured sound of the quintet that Hancock was going for. He delivered on that in magnificent fashion.

The well-known "Watermelon Man" became a clever mixture of the familiar with fresh imagination. "Actual Proof," from Hancock's 1970's Headhunters period, received a complete regeneration. The integrity of the song was still apparent. But now it was merged seamlessly with the current sound scape.

They closed the set with "Cantaloupe Island." Hancock's familiar keystrokes were well received by the sellout crowd. This time, however, the song quickly diverted in a different direction. A bit shorter this time, but yet another fresh and renewed jazz segment. Just as the quintet had jelled to a crescendo, Martin led them back to the island with a slow and penetrating take on the melody. Thriving in this tempo, he played with nuance and feeling in a sophisticated manner. Hancock was beaming across the stage in appreciate of Martin's playing. Genus and Loueke, as well, were smiling and glancing over in both admiration and at the apparent challenge of playing the melody that slowly.

Hancock indeed smiled, beamed, and was full of admiration and appreciation for the efforts and musicianship of his quintet throughout the adventurous musical journey. After yet another jaw-dropping sequence from Colaiuta, Hancock just sat and shook his head repeatedly. He leaned forward to the microphone as if he was going to say something. Earlier, in the introduction, he had lauded Colaiuta to no end. Figuring there wasn't much more he could say, he leaned back from the microphone and proceeded to just shake his head for another ten seconds.

Hancock moved deftly through the set list from his grand piano to his electronic keyboard. His keytar sat in clear view during the show on the far left of the stage. He waited until the encore to strap it on. It was worth the wait. The band kicked in to the funk driven "Chameleon" with high energy and attack. Hancock played powerfully and enthusiastically for over ten minutes. It was clear that he was having a lot of fun. So was everyone else on stage and in the audience. Hancock used his keytar to create a statement like an epic guitar solo that would have made the likes of Mike Stern or Jeff Beck proud.

This was a performance for the ages, with a full range of musical languages and expressions. To see Herbie Hancock is to see a legend. But, moreover, it is to hear the epitome of modern jazz in all its glory.

Photo credit: Dave Kaufman

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