There are more facets to Herbie Hancock than one could possibly squeeze into one concert, and he keeps us on our toes by zigzagging among them. At his Disney Hall debut Saturday night, Hancock concentrated upon two of these directions — reviving his star-studded “Gershwin’s World” project and revisiting some shafts of brilliance from his youth while putting different spins on them. It made for an elegant evening of symphonic jazz, impeccably performed, but it fell just short of the ecstatic ignition of Hancock’s most audacious concerts.
Hancock caught a good deal of the flavor of the “Gershwin’s World” album — released by Verve back in 1998 — in these excerpts, where he upset the usual routine of tribute albums by darting in and out of the Gershwin canon, gathering the composer’s influences as well as his works. Sometimes he would just embroider the letter of the score with his piano (the “Lullaby” for string quartet in an orchestral transcription by conductor Robert Sadin), or he would ignore the tune of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” altogether. Why Sadin chose to open the concert with his arrangement of a J.S. Bach fugue is uncertain, but he conducted it with an appealing bounce and lilt that captured the attention of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In the second half, Hancock once again found new complex things to say about some gems from three and four decades ago — “Maiden Voyage,” “Actual Proof,” “Dolphin Dance,” Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” — occasionally expanded by some inventive orchestral arrangements. Sadin’s chart for “Maiden Voyage” was especially insightful, picking up on the hazy, wandering quality of the tune, and Hancock managed to reproduce the electric jazz/funk feeling of “Actual Proof” using only an acoustic trio.
The whole enterprise was enhanced to a great degree by a new discovery of Hancock’s and Sadin’s — a superb young percussionist named Richie Barshay. He seems frightfully young, but then, so did Tony Williams when Hancock started working with him — and this kid could go just as far with his crisp, parrying technique that combines tablas, bongos and conga with a standard trap set.