Review: Herbie Hancock at LJF 2012




Percussion intro, staccato synthesiser, the trademark slow build with synth doubling up as keyboard and guitar over the top of a funky as hell bass part and assorted programmed drumbeats. Twenty breathtaking minutes later, he casually lets slip: "I just made that one up."

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Francis Graham-Dixon sees Herbie Hancock making merry with digital friends at the Royal Festival Hall on the third night of the 2012 London Jazz Festival


Herbie HancockI have long wondered how a true great selects what to perform from a lifetime of musical milestones. In the end, it would not really have mattered what Herbie decided to play. The enjoyment always lies in not quite knowing what to expect, although you know the experience will leave you feeling glad to be alive. And so it proved, with a memorable night when he transported a packed Royal Festival Hall for two hours on another inimitable journey of improvisation into the unknown – by turns an acoustic recital, sound technology exploration and rhythm odyssey. The voyage started at the Fazioli concert grand with Wayne Shorter's Footprints, lately covered by artists as dissimilar as Terence Blanchard and Madlib. A reflective mood slowly dissolved into urgent, swirling percussive runs, before steering serenely into port. Then, another surprise, his Sonrisa (from the 1978 album The Piano), arranged here with an underlay of marimba, kettledrums and double basses as counterpoint to the piano's dazzling refracted colour.

A pause to address the audience: "Jazz is always about composing – typically, an attempt to keep to the form of the original." But by taking to the stage alone in the company of his pre-programmed Korg Kronos Workstation and various keyboards and synthesisers, this gave him licence to move away from the original, as there were no other musicians – just his rapt audience. Or, as he put it: "Freedom with responsibility." Not many pull this off, but Mr. Hands remains one step ahead of his admirers, as well as his imitators, by never staying in one place for too long.

Unsurprisingly, the timeless musicality, sense of adventure and invention he brings to all of his very best work came to the fore from first bar to closing triumphant chords, helped here by the orchestral keyboard arrangements of sound designer, George Whitty (who worked with him on The Imagine Project). Then, Maiden Voyage re-invented, a keyboard soundscape on the grand scale: tabla and percussion loop introducing symphonic strings, choral backing, hypnotic beat and vocoder used sparingly as light and shade to accent the changes, then acoustic piano – I imagined Joe Zawinul smiling from another world. This was technology not used for its own sake, but in service to authentic musical purpose. A master was at the controls.

Where to next? "Let’s build a rhythm track," he mused. The anticipation was palpable. Percussion intro, staccato synthesiser, the trademark slow build with synth doubling up as keyboard and guitar over the top of a funky as hell bass part and assorted programmed drumbeats. Twenty breathtaking minutes later, he casually lets slip: "I just made that one up." They loved it, even the mid-flight drama, when he pressed the wrong "off" button and the musical alchemy was silenced for a minute before his "tech man" calmly restored power to much laughter. It almost felt deliberate, but no, I can confirm that the man is human. I've seen this happen over the years, and audiences can get restive – but not here. Collective feet were still tapping out the groove, and the piece resumed. Genius.

Then another improvised acoustic ballad, classical in construction, jazz in swing that slowly melted away to re-emerge in the form of a modern-day Watermelon Man, a fusion of snapping bass and drum loops underpinning a richly embroidered acoustic solo, call and response between piano and synthesiser with hip-hop and rap thrown into the mix – edge and impeccable taste in equal measure, as you would expect.

The night came to the boil with the first bars of Rockit, not a particular favourite of mine, before transmuting into more re-invention for a new age – this time, Chameleon for one-man band. Almost 40 years on and counting, this remains a touchstone, perhaps the benchmark for jazz-inspired dance music. When you don't want a gig to end you know you've just witnessed something special to mark the end of his European tour. Appreciation should go also to sound engineer, Ed Leonard, who did the great man and the hall proud. Bon voyage, Herbie, and thank you for your great gift to humanity.


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Your Comments:

Posted by Simon, 13 November 2012, 13:36 (1 of 1)

Yes it was a great night. But I thought Herbie played Cantaloupe Island not Watermelon Man??!! Easy to get your melons mixed up.

Simon - well spotted. Fruity stuff whatever the name. - MG


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