Hollywood, CA- I don’t know whether it’s due to residual shock over all the legends we lost in 2016 or to the inescapable possibility that the bombs may start falling at any moment, but I’ve spent a lot of time 2017 seeing living legends. Some, like Roger Waters, simply put on one hell of a show by any metric; others, like Billy Joel, have lost a few miles off their fastball but still possess a vast catalogue of hits. And then there’s Herbie Hancock, an actual legend by any objective definition of the term who nevertheless fits into neither of those two categories.
My long-term investment in Herbie Hancock is not deep. Growing up, he made the kind of music I disdained because it seemed like music you played to test your stereo setup; by the time I finally got a legitimate stereo setup of my own in adulthood, there were other musical roads I felt compelled to investigate first. Finally, a few years ago I got a copy of “Head Hunters” at a swap meet, and everything clicked for me. I’d been getting into the more cosmic side of jazz around that time by way of Alice Coltrane and Kamasi Washington, and Herbie’s sound made for a refreshing change of pace, a counterpoint to the wild, trans-dimensional expanse served up on those other records.
As it turns out, however, the Herbie Hancock live experience is every bit as far out as you could ever hope for a show to be. His band was lean but profoundly mean, a quartet of the kind of stupendously talented professionals you only ever encounter in jazz groups. Everyone was just so precise, which I guess was to be expected; Hancock’s music is the equivalent of high-level video game play, where individual frames decide winners and world record holders, so it makes sense that he’d surround himself with collaborators who prove capable of subdividing time into ludicrously small measures. Keys are struck, strings are plucked, phrases begin and end at precise intervals. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta was the most obvious instrument of this approach, launching into several drum solos over the course of the evening which left the audience gasping. But all of this precision wasn’t just for show; all of the sharp rhythm angles frame the broad flourishes of vocoder beautifully, like an abstract painting where bold brush strokes of color against a grid.
Occasionally, some of those flourishes would come from Herbie’s special guest: Terrace Martin, producer of tracks on “My Krazy Life” and “BlaQKout” and literally every Kendrick album since “Section.80“, who showed up to play saxophone, play keys, and work the vocoder. While introducing Martin, Hancock announced that the two were collaborating on an upcoming record, which: yes please.
My mind immediately jumped back to my favorite legend I’ve seen in 2017 so far: A Tribe Called Quest at FYF, and specifically how much fun they were having doing stuff from “Thank You For Your Service”. Martin’s approach could very well bring one of those late-career zeitgeist-capturing masterpieces out of Herbie; Martin was clearly relishing the opportunity to play alongside one of his heroes, the chemistry the two showed on stage was undeniable, and Herbie absolutely still knows how to work the keys. I’m not saying to expect one of those records; just don’t be surprised if it happens. And if it does happen, and Herbie hits the road touring behind it, and his tour comes to your neck of the woods: go.
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