As the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz, Herbie Hancock has a platform — and he used that platform at Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night to field a band whose combined musical starpower could light up a football stadium. Many in this Celebrating Peace ensemble have worked together before in various groupings, but never as one mighty constellation. Perhaps this diverse band of leaders did not fulfill all of its potential on this one night, yet it could soar frequently enough to make it all worthwhile.
Amazingly, the 90-minute set had a definite shape. The humanistic theme of the evening was set with an impressionistic rhapsody on Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy,” and many of the numbers were connected by lovely, gauzy electronic interludes, dominated by Hancock and George Whitty on synthesizers. The rhythm section’s grooves were always solid and infectious — the most fully-realized aspect of the set, driven by the splendidly responsive drumming of Cindy Blackman Santana and Zakir Hussain brilliantly playing tablas like a surprisingly funky conguero.
Throughout the evening, Hancock unleashed a dazzling variety of the styles that he has championed over the decades from the most abstract, complex acoustic piano to jiggling electronic jazz-funk and even a rare revival of his vocoder “vocals” of the 1970s. Wayne Shorter, as always in settings like these, was reticent, pared-down and to-the-point on soprano and tenor saxes, reaching back to his 1974 collaboration with Milton Nascimento for “Ponta De Areia.”
Carlos Santana, who after a long period of commercial compromise is trying to recharge his artistic engines (his new album on his fledgling Starfaith label, “Shape Shifter,” is a good start), seemed a bit lost in this fast company at first. Yet sparely and gingerly, his completely distinctive collection of guitar licks gradually took hold. Although billed as a “special guest,” Santana played the entire set — and midway through, started exerting some leadership over the band on “Dis Is Da Drum” and the beautiful Love Theme from “Spartacus” (from his “The Swing Of Delight” album).
True, there was only so much room to rumble in a large band loaded with leaders, but the two monster bassists, Marcus Miller on electric and Dave Holland on acoustic (talk about luxury casting!), should have taken more solo space; they did get one extremely funky dual showcase on “Sonrisa.” Two vocalists completed the picture — Andy Vargas rocking out on Michael Jackson’s paranoid “They Don’t Care About Us” and Kalil Wilson’s melodramatic tenor on “Novus.”
If one had a quibble, it was that the soloing — which sometimes sounded like loose jamming — was not always on the same consistent level as the uplifting grooves. Imagine how the band would fly if these players could somehow align their busy schedules and stay together awhile.
Swiss jazz harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret opened with a pleasant mainstream set that grew unexpectedly feverish down the stretch.