As the music world well knows, there are many Herbie Hancocks – too many to be adequately summarized on one program (though the Thelonious Monk Institute’s tribute at the Kodak Theatre in 2007 came the closest). So for the much-anticipated 70th birthday concert at Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night, a circus of performers concentrated most of their energies upon two of Hancock’s personas: The jazz pianist who helped propel the second great Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-late-1960s, and the forever-curious, forward-looking innovator expanding his canvas to embrace the globe.
Both approaches resulted in some ageless, sometimes bewildering, often brilliant musicmaking. It was hard to believe that the bounding, boyish figure in front of the 88 keys had just become a septuagenarian.
The concert was the capstone on a tour supporting Hancock’s current mission, “The Imagine Project” (Hancock Records), which tries to weld several tangles of idioms into a coherent statement on artistic globalization. The album hangs together because Hancock’s alert, distinctive piano, and his electric keyboard playing turned out to be a unifying thread; there’s not a hint of dumbing-down to fit the style.
But first came a real treat – another of Hancock’s periodic attempts (starting with V.S.O.P. in the `70s) to resurrect the Miles Davis Quintet format and take it to new places. Again, Hancock came up with a killer group of heavyweights: His old cohort Wayne Shorter on pithy soprano sax, trumpeter Terence Blanchard in top form, Jack DeJohnette’s ecstatic drums, and the young star on the rise, Esperanza Spalding on acoustic bass (with electric bassist Nathan East making a brief cameo on “Footprints”). The chemistry was extraordinary, with Shorter and Blanchard challenging each other in a contrapuntal “Bitches Brew”-like texture where Hancock’s Fazioli acoustic grand almost sounded like an electric piano; Hancock responding with wit to Spalding’s flowing, jabbing bass solo on “Maiden Voyage”; and some daring, electrifying salvos into free jazz.
Amazingly, the following “Imagine Project” segment didn’t seem anti-climactic, for Hancock’s touring band – guitarist Lionel Loueke, super-sessionman Greg Phillinganes on keyboards and vocals, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Pino Palladino, and singer Kristina Train – was just as hot, as well as road-tested. One wondered how some of the “Imagine Project” tunes – assembled in a variety of studios and countries – could be performed live, and the solution in a few cases was to iron-out some rhythmic complexities and increase the temperature of the performance.
Given L.A.’s vast musical resources, Hancock was able to perform some things at the Bowl that he couldn’t do on tour – like the furious mix of Indian music, R&B and jazz on “The Song Goes On,” with Shorter, Zakir Hussain’s tabla, and Niladri Kumar’s sitar. Guests from the album poured in for solo turns, including singer India.Arie on “Imagine,” guitarist Derek Trucks (with singer Susan Tedeschi) roaring on “Space Captain,” and Colombian singer Juanes with percussionist Alex Acuna for “La Tierra.” Also, “Actual Proof,” “Watermelon Man” and “Chameleon” from the “Headhunters” period were sprinkled into the set, done to a smoking turn.