Even before septuagenarian Herbie Hancock rolled into town he had been sought out by most of the mainstream media. This man fascinates people beyond the Jazz world and I suspect that everyone would give a different reason why. Herbie is simply larger than life and terminal cool is his brand. When asked by Lynne Freeman of Radio New Zealand whether he was going to spend the rest of his days fine tuning his impressive musical legacy he surprised her by replying, “Music is what I do but it is not who I am. I am a human being and I want to work on real issues that effect ordinary people”. A long time devout Buddhist (as is his close friend and long time collaborator Wayne Shorter) he exudes calm and speaks with commonsense. Herbie does not buy into his star status; but to others he is never-the-less a living legend.
We could feel the excitement mounting as we waited for the show to begin and then right on 8 pm the lights dimmed and drummer Trevor Lawrence strode onto the stage He laid down a solid mesmerizing beat until James Genus appeared, who then added to the groove on his electric bass. Suddenly Herbie was on stage; grinning and bowing to the audience and the fun began. He looked fit and ready to get-down to it. The group swiftly ripped into an upbeat, spirited avante guard tinged piece (Actual Proof) that was more Ornette than Empyrean Isles. I suspect that would have taken many out of their comfort zone and this was clearly the intention. The mood was well set and throughout the concert Herbie skillfully used tension and release in enumerable ways. As this amazingly high energy group moved through the varied repertoire you could see the joy on their faces. James genus seldom took his eyes of Herbie and they played as a single entity. We got spirited renditions of Hancock classics followed by highly atmospheric tunes (such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘court and spark’ from the Grammy winning ‘River’ album with Wayne Shorter). ‘Court and spark’ and other songs were sung by the fourth band member, vocalist and violinist Kristina Train. Her voice was smokey and appealing and the crowd loved her. We heard a jazz version of Bob Dylan’s ‘the times they are a changing’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ accompanied by pre-recorded Sudanese musicians. ‘It’s 2011’ said Herbie as he pointed to the hard drive at the heart of his system. Herbie Hancock is the undisputed master of electronic keyboards and effects, but on Tuesday he reminded us that he still owned the acoustic piano chair as well.
This was the history of post 50’s Jazz and it was the perfect ethnomusicology lesson. We heard Irish, African, folk music and classic delta blues but the master’s stamp was on all of it. This edgy musical journey was still unmistakably Jazz. In the middle portion of the concert however Herbie played solo piano, taking us on an impressionistic reflective journey through his Maiden Voyage albums. The band came back to accompany him on ‘Cantaloupe Island’ in what was to end a half hour piano medley, which held every one in awe. Even ‘Round about Midnight’ got an airing. Not a sniffle , not a cough, even Keith would have been impressed. The stuff that I loved best was his Headhunter funk and he swung and grooved that like crazy – deep down grooves played with boundless joyous energy. At the end of the concert he brought on a visiting group of blues rockers; slide guitarist Derrick Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi (a loud singer who sounds a lot like Janis Joplin). This was pure enjoyment from start to finish and if anyone thought that Jazz was in decline they should have seen the age-range of those present. The faces of the audience as they came out told the whole story.