Way before Wynton Marsalis leaped into prominence, it was Herbie Hancock who, in the late 1970s, inadvertently triggered the neo-bop reaction to jazz’s electric period. This paved the way for the Young Lions, who made their names playing straight-ahead jazz despite their upbringing in the funky stuff that Hancock was also exploring. But that was long ago. Times have changed, minds have been re-opened, and maturing ex-Young Lions like Joshua Redman and Christian McBride embrace an array of styles with far more electrifying results. As for the chameleonic Hancock, he’s as restless and curious as ever at age 66.
In paring his act down to just a trio — saxophone, bass and drums — Redman pushed himself into creating some astonishing flights on tenor and soprano saxes, with no sense of incompleteness in the textures. Everything held one’s interest, whether it be the key-shifting journey through “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” the dignified African drone-based “Zarafah,” or the concluding sophisticated funk of “Odd Man Out.”
In his first Bowl concert since assuming the L.A. Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz, McBride jammed happily with his smokin’ four-piece band, playing with his usual astounding fluidity and intense swing on both double bass and electric bass.
Keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer dipped frequently into bags of tricks from the ’60s and ’70s, deftly reviving the funky wah-wah Rhodes electric piano sound, while drummer Terreon Gully drove the groove good and hard on “Boogie Woogie Waltz.”
Hancock, meanwhile, kept busy trying to find new textures to explore while revivifying his rich past and reconnecting his multi-faceted keyboard styles to his surroundings. For long stretches in the last decade, his playing seemed to drift in clouds of oblivious abstraction. Not anymore; his distinctive harmonies and complex rhythmic ideas were always in touch with his new band.
In a new twist for Hancock, there is a violin on his front line (Lili Haydn), and his West African experiments of the ’80s have resumed in the person of Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke, who shares Hancock’s fascination with electronic effects. The smoothly updated “Actual Proof” from 1974’s “Thrust” album and a masterful segue from one vintage Hancock classic (“Maiden Voyage”) to another (a rollicking “Canteloupe Island”) highlighted the set, while Haydn’s vocal showcase should have been trimmed.