Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Herbie Hancock brings his decades-long legacy to Hilbert Circle Theatre

At the beginning of Herbie Hancock's career, technology had only a small role to play in the creation
Herbie Hancock has a lot of music to contemplate.
of new jazz. The plugged-in part of the music was largely restricted to setting the desired studio conditions, with wizards like Rudy Van Gelder influencing the sound of jazz as the wider public encountered it on recordings.

Hancock's representation in the old Blue Note catalogue is still a part of his long legacy worth cherishing. But  the pianist quickly turned his fascination with electronics into a myriad of ways to communicate musically. Some of the flowering of this involvement was evident, both positively and otherwise, throughout a two-hour concert Tuesday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Presented by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (which did not appear), Hancock was accompanied by Lionel Loueke, guitar; James Genus, electric bass, and Trevor Lawrence Jr., drums.
Hancock divided most of his attention between his Fazioli piano and Kronos keyboard synthesizer.

As inviting as Hancock appeared to be in his initial remarks from the stage, what he dubbed "the overture" proved difficult of access, at least to this listener. The piece went in several directions that seemed only faintly compatible. Some sort of galactic scatteration of sound started things off —  out-of-tempo splashes and burblings that eventually coalesced into long-delayed forward motion.

An episode for Loueke, including self-harmonizing via Vocoder vocals, paid chirpy respects to his West African heritage. That's part of his unique appeal as a guitarist, including a nice variety of percussive and plucked notes alluding to acoustic folk instruments of his homeland. There would emerge in the course of the long set another sound, sort of like the Theremin but without as much swooping, that still was unattractively gloopy and  redundant with the electronic sonorities that Hancock often favors. The leader's  briefly employed strap-on keyboard could just as well have been left on the table.

Toward the end of the overture, "Chameleon," a Hancock hit from the 1960s, was brought into play. It seemed to fit mainly to show that the leader intended to incorporate at least a few parts of his legacy. The quartet worked well together: The drummer was adaptable to the various Hancock styles that melded in the course of the concert, though his funk drumming adhered to the groove less crisply than Harvey Mason's or Mike Clark's. I favor Genus as an acoustic bass player to the degree I know his work; on the more liquid-sounding electric bass, he had a tendency, especially in a long solo near the end, to clutter his lines to the point of incoherence.

The Hancock style at the piano is deserving of its historic stature. From his early 20s on, he showed a way forward out of bebop piano. True, many jazz pianists even today find their own ways to build upon Bud Powell, but from the first Hancock had an individual manner of rounding out his phrases, generally eschewing the unaccented tendrils and offbeat wisps that were so much a part of bop phrasing. He usually defines cadences and phrase endings in a more emphatic way than the bop norm, and uses thick chords to point toward temporary stopping points.

This personal style has continued quite strong up to the present. His harmonic imagination is still fertile. Putting together chords in sequence — he also favors short single-line phrase sequences — is often a fresh adventure for Hancock. He has his personal cliches, of course, but his keyboard vocabulary is so rich he can make rhapsodic and angular playing work cheek by jowl unlike anyone else. And as his recordings with Miles Davis demonstrate, no pianist "comps" better. He inspires his colleagues to swing harder just as much as any drummer. In this concert, I felt he was particularly strong in both solo and accompaniment functions during another trip down memory lane — the concert finale, "Cantaloupe Island."