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Friday, June 07, 2019

Review: Herbie Hancock, Wellington Jazz Festival Michael Fowler Centre 5 July 2019

Photo: Tim Gruar
Coffee Bar Kid at The Wellington Jazz Festival

I’ve been to the Wellington Jazz Festival many times over the years and seen some fantastic performances but none has been greater than Wayne Shorter (who was here two years ago) and now Herbie Hancock. He is the absolute master – his universal appeal, wide influence on music, pioneering use of synths and keyboards, the re-invention of what funk is and, of course, his association with Miles Davis.
Hancock was 23 when Davis invited him to join his band, and what a band that was: with Davis leading on trumpet, Shorter (saxophone), Ron Carter (bass) and drummer completing the team. Aficionados will argue until the cows come home about the minor details but that was Davis’s greatest quintet was one of the most important groups in jazz history.
“Those were very seminal, important days for me,” he told the Aussie press, recently, “and anybody who’s been influenced by not only Miles or been influenced by my playing.” He describes Davis as “the Jedi master”, and “Wayne Shorter …He’s like the living Yoda to me.” He even paraphrases Miles tonight, noting that his band is all guys – a loss to the world of jazz (no women).
His back catalogue is phenomenal. Next to Stevie Wonder, he’s a house hold name and a giant in the craft. Recent set lists have featured a range of work over the mid 70’s, his ‘classic years’. There’s a strong rumour that the 79 year old is working on a new album, one already being talked up as his most ambitious in years, and if the stars align it ‘might’ feature a cameo from one of the world’s biggest rappers, Kendrick Lamar, although that’s still unconfirmed.
In some concerts recently he has been seen on stage playing the Moog Liberation keytar, that emblem of the 80s which he used for the iconic digital track Rockit. I really wanted to see that tonight.
Regarding the set list, what exactly was on the menu tonight was a vivid point of discussion as I settled down to my seat. There were those wanting something from his early Blue Note records, maybe ‘Maiden Voyage’ (1965) or ‘Nefertiti’ (the 1968 Miles Davis album that’s the almost perfect point for post-bop). Then there were those wanting a re-creation of his 1973 funk masterpiece ‘Head Hunters’. I suspected it was going to be a bit of a milkshake of all of that.
Checking out his recent gigs, he’s still going strong. He’s just blasted shows in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne and a gig for International Jazz Day 2019 with an extraordinary All-Star Global Concert at the Melbourne Arts Centre’s renowned Hamer Hall alongside James Morrison, musical director John Beasley and an All-Star Global roster of artists from more than a dozen countries.
It’s the opening of the Wellington Jazz Festival. So after a short mihi and a speech from the Artistic Director Marnie Karmelita it all kicks off. Out come the four musicians and everyone cheers loudly, and rightly, for Herbie Hancock. The place is packed to the rafters with all ages. Even the choir stalls have temporary seating added, giving a 360 ambience to the concert as the audience surrounds the band on all four sides. They blast into a maelstrom of beguiling, cascading abstract rhythms of ‘Overture’. Almost immediately Lionel Loueke (Guitar/Vocals) goes ‘off piste’ with a volley of crazy digital toys that turn his headless all wood body guitar into a weapon of mass delusion. It mimics keyboards, synths, African instruments and even a sitar.
For the second track Loueke goes totally nuts, drumming his instrument, finger picking, rubbing it like a violin and ‘singing’ through it to transform his one voice into an infinite choir of many. Lionel Loueke’s ‘Dark Lightning / Chameleon’ was one mesmerising party trick. Even Hancock himself a pioneer of digital music is blown away. He sits awestruck on his piano stool watching with a huge grin on his face.
Loueke’s not the only incredible player on the stage. Veteran drummer Vinnie Colaiuta would rival Wayne Shorter any day. His playing is well beyond simple syncopated time keeping as he carves out hip hop and funk rhythms and juxtaposes them with deliberate cymbal crashes, almost in a competitive shouting match with the steady, reliable engine room bass of James Genus. There’s genuine playfulness and frivolity in Hancock’s style and it’s infectious. Everyone was having a ball on stage. Hancock slides between caressing the keys on his Kronos to tinkling the ivories on the grand, and, at times effortlessly playing both at once.
At one point I wonder why Hancock hasn’t made another album in recent years. But watching him on stage you can see why. He still feels absolute joy at playing live, and every performance is improvised and inventive and there’s complete passion behind it. Old tunes get revitalised as if they were composed yesterday – like ‘Absolute Proof’ from Head Hunters, dripping in layers of funk – to ‘Come Running To Me’ from Hancock’s 1978 album Sunlight. He maximises the vocoder-type technology to digitize his voice and sing robotic but sweet harmonies. About an hour in, Hancock tries out ‘Secret Sauce’, a sprawling new number featuring more of Loueke’s steely guitar. Hancock shifts to his synthesizer for a stretch out, and eventually straps on an enormous white keytar which covers most of his small frame. You’d think he could barely hold it but instead swans around like it’s made of air.
Teasing us, Hancock finishes with a few bars of ‘Cantelope Island’ before launching into a fully abstracted and elongated free jazz rendition of the song. The audience applause is deafening. This version is an ecstatic jazz fusion fizz bomb, driving at break neck speed through endless twists and turns, navigated mainly by Loueke’s synthed up guitar which takes over the usual trumpet solos and blasts them into oblivion. When Colaiuta crashes out the concluding beats the room is on its feet, overcome and wired.
But we’re not quite done. The encore, you guessed it, is ‘Rockit’. Hancock, once again straps on the beast and lets rip, jamming with Loueke and playing off him like duelling banjos. I don’t think I’ll ever see a pioneer like Herbie Hancock ever again in my lifetime – a gifted jazz, electro and rhythm scene maker who plays with such immense passion and respect for his audience. Tonight, I witnessed a genius of sound creation, and a true and pure artist like no other.
  1. Overture
  2. Lionel Loueke’s Dark Lightening / Chameleon
  3. Actual Proof
  4. Come Running To Me
  5. Secret Source
  6. Alone Together
  7. Cantaloupe Island
  8. Rockit [encore]

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