LOS ANGELES, CA- As a part of the LA Fest program for the orchestra’s 100th anniversary, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel collaborated with Herbie Hancock for a lively evening. This series has produced a number of unexpected pairings between young composers, local luminaries, and special guests. This evening would be no exception.

First, the LA Phil performed a new commission by John Adams. The piece had a slightly-jazzy-meets-John-Williams feel. Whoever is in charge of programming these evenings has taken a smart approach, tacking short compositions by new composers onto the beginning of evenings featuring much bigger names. That way, a larger audience is exposed to these new works without feeling distracted from the marquee event.

After a short intermission, Herbie Hancock and his band joined the orchestra on an extremely crowded stage. With so many performers on hand, there was barely room for Hancock to move — leaving him bumping into music stands and gingerly stepping around equipment. And the ability to move was important because Hancock frequently switches between instruments, including jamming with a freaking keytar. I didn’t know there was a way to make a keytar work outside of an 80s music video, but yet Hancock somehow pulls it off.

In a brief reminder of his age, Hancock also pointed out during a transition that the monitors he was wearing with the orchestra present required him to take out his hearing aids. Without this comment, I would never have remembered that this vibrant performer is nearly 80.

He was joined onstage by his talented band. A guest bass clarinetist played with a throaty depth of sound that I could feel in my ribcage. There was also an incredible scratching solo from GrandMixer DXT on turntables. I doubt that the redoubtable founders of the philharmonic — or influential 60s leader Dorothy Buffum Chandler for that matter — could have ever envisioned this kind of collaboration. They may be doing cartwheels in their graves, but it’s exactly this type of pairing that is moving the orchestra into the future rather than leaving it to mildew. And it’s hard to imagine anyone better than Gustavo Dudamel to have at the helm to start the new century.

Mid-way through the second half of the performance, the orchestra left the stage. In a playful moment, Hancock explained that “it’s hard to segue into something else,” only to have an audience member call out, “I think you’ll be okay.” I can’t condone audience members shouting out to the performers, but it made everyone laugh.

And indeed, this was where Hancock and his band truly started to shine. While the orchestra is always phenomenal, there’s no way around the fact that having so many musicians present weighed down the band. An orchestra is a cumbersome beast, unable to move and jam with the energy of a jazz musician. And frankly, there’s nothing less funky than a viola.

The lights fell and a blue/green wash covered the stage as Hancock performed. Soon, the numbers incorporated autotuned ambient vocals by one of the band members. Not words but sounds that highlighted the voice as instrument. The vocalist/keyboardist also made the audience laugh, hamming it up as he performed and radiating charm. The chemistry of the band was undeniable.

They played on, gliding through the rest of the night without the orchestra. As great as the performers were, the audience had clearly stayed up past their bedtimes. About 10:45, a big portion of the crowd left between numbers. I couldn’t imagine leaving while a legend was performing — especially so close to the end of the evening.  And while I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to see Herbie Hancock, I ultimately wished I could have seen him in a small, smoky jazz club instead. We could all be so lucky.

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Herbie Hancock. GQ Photo. Provided by Herbie Hancock and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Used with permission.
Herbie Hancock. GQ Photo. Provided by Herbie Hancock and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Used with permission.