Future presenters will have a hard time trying to match the jazz and pop star-loaded tribute to the protean pianist/composer Herbie Hancock at the Kodak Theater Sunday evening. It was as if your record collection was parading on the stage before your eyes — which, given Hancock’s fearless zigzagging between a plethora of genres over the decades, was only fitting.
The concert was piggybacked on top of the final round of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, which had never been held in Los Angeles until this past weekend. While there were defects in the presentation (recorded for future airing on BET) – the sound was often grating and the detailed background projection of the L.A. skyline made it difficult to see many of the performers — one applauds the scheduling savvy that it took to gather these people in one place.
The tribute could not cover all of Hancock’s various directions — that deserves a month-long festival — but it did touch upon several of his important landmarks. From the post-bop 1960s, we heard “Cantaloupe Island,” graced by George Benson’s brilliantly funky guitar chording and Roy Hargrove’s cool, trilling horn.
Skipping over Hancock’s great, probing sextets, the concert landed in his mid-`70s electric jazz-funk period with many of the original Headhunters lending a hand, George Duke on Fender-Rhodes piano and Al Jarreau trading licks on the Africanized arrangement of “Watermelon Man,” and Hubert Laws adding swirling flute runs to “Butterfly.” The 1983 techno hit “Rockit” — which still flaunts a weird sense of humor — scratched and kicked about, accompanied by some agile dancers.
After accepting the first Herbie Hancock Humanitarian Award from the Monk Institute, Hancock himself filled in some of the blanks, playing an inward, arpeggiated piano solo before Wayne Shorter, Vinnie Colaiuta and John Patitucci joined him in “Maiden Voyage.” The resurgent Joni Mitchell, whom Hancock feted in his new introspective release, “River: The Joni Letters” (Verve), delivered a pair of vocals, her unique phrasing seductively intact on the autobiographical “The Tea Leaf Prophecy” and “Hana” as Herbie and Wayne offered trenchant musical commentary.
“My Funny Valentine,” a nod to Hancock’s Miles Davis association, didn’t come off very well; Sting seemed out of his element and Chris Botti contributed vapid reverbed trumpet. And most of the cast united for a loud, heavy, but nicely bumpy closing workout on “Chameleon.”
The competition — for trumpeters this year — was won by Ambrose Akinmusire, followed in order by Jean Caze and Michael Rodriguez. Though their respective styles were like apples and oranges, all three ably matched wits with Jarreau and Duke.