Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Herbie Hancock is both the most lovable and the most inscrutable of Miles Davis’ still-active pianist-protégés. He’s less commercially cloying than Chick Corea, who hasn’t found a lucrative tribute band or reunion tour he didn’t like. He’s not an excruciating perfectionist like Keith Jarrett, who still yells at audience members for coughing. Hancock is quick to strike up a good rapport with the audience without making it seem that he likes to hear himself talk. You actually seem to know the guy. He’s not some guarded, frizzy-haired genius, or someone who hasn’t done anything new in fifteen years.
But once Hancock sits down to play, all bets are off. You really have no idea which Herbie you’re going to hear until he touches that first key. Hancock has traversed wide swaths of aesthetic ground throughout his five-decade career – from abstract, harmonically-complex acoustic jazz in the ‘60s, to electrified fusions of the ‘70s, to proto-Hip Hop, to recent pop crossovers, with dabblings in classical along the way – and everyone has a favorite period. During his solo performance at McCarter Theater a few Mondays ago, Hancock seemed hell-bent on both pleasing and pissing off everyone at some point, conforming to no one’s narrative but his own.
Since Hancock has been recently touring with a full quartet, this solo performance promised to showcase Hancock at his most elemental, stripped of rehearsed tendencies. This promise was met from the start when Hancock opened with an abstract exploration of harmony and color on his grand piano. He hit dense, rolling chords, using copious sustain pedal, letting the audience live in each sonority. There was an intense purity to this introduction, no stylistic hallmarks, just searching. Gradually, a recognizable melody slipped into the painting – that of “Footprints,” a tune by Hancock’s Miles Davis band mate Wayne Shorter. But even with this introduction of a sonic anchor, the explorations continued, unhampered. The piece became a more classical theme and variations, rather than a traditional jazz theme and jam. The melody was ever present, the harmonies, rhythms, and forms floating around it. Every so often, Hancock would hold a chord for extended moment and bring his left hand up to his chin, actively pondering where to go next. It was as if you were waiting on a musical precipice with him, not knowing what would happen once he made the jump.
After a similar exploration on his own classic tune “Dolphin Dance,” Hancock plugged himself in. Apparently missing his band, Hancock used an array of computers and synthesizers to conjure a virtual orchestra that played a moody, new-agey arrangement of Hancock’s composition “Sonrisa.” As the orchestra cycled through programmed riffs, Hancock added solo filigree on the piano. The piece developed into a concerto for improvising piano and orchestra, more interesting in concept than in execution.
What followed was for some a devolution, for others the highlight of the evening. Without waiting even a beat for the applause to fade, Hancock booted up a funky drum groove from his beat box, followed quickly by the instantly recognizable bass line of “Canteloupe Island,” a funk chestnut, since appropriated by many a television commercial. Backed by his band-in-a-box, Hancock slid from piano to synthesizer, letting his different personas take a unique solo. Then he picked up the much-maligned keytar, an instrument that most people believe died a timely death in 1989. As I tried to hold back laughter and listen beyond the oh-so-cheesy patch Hancock was using, I noticed that he takes this instrument very seriously. While his right hand flew around the keyboard’s upper range, his left hand stayed put on the neck, pushing buttons to bend and stretch the notes – lingua franca for horn players and guitarists, but impossible with the distinctly quantized notes of a piano. It was as if Hancock was challenging the audience members to drop their preconceptions of the instrument and its sounds and hear the inherent substance of each note. For a brief moment, we all got a glimpse into the reason for one of Hancock’s most maddening tendencies – to hide his immaculate touch behind a wall of electronics.
While Herbie Hancock may draw the ire of many a jazz traditionalist with this penchant for unnatural sounds (I’ll even admit that his patch of assorted grunts, “oh yeahs,” and “come ons” was a bit much), he’s no pop-savvy sellout. No matter the style, Hancock’s music is always about finding something new – a new sound, a new harmony, a new way of playing an old song. Just because a particular sound seems silly upon first hearing it doesn’t mean it’s not worth serious exploration. Hancock seems just find with remaining an enigma to listeners everywhere. He’ll just keep asserting his musical freedom, challenging us to throw off our own shackles of listening prejudices. As Hancock takes on his new role as UN Goodwill Ambassador, I can’t think of a more appropriate advocate for free musical expression, no matter the sound or style.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Let's Go Promming

NPR's been doing a series of stories about high school proms this week, including this little ditty from the All Songs Considered folks about alternate prom anthems.

This got me thinking about what songs I wish I had at my high school prom. So in flash of post-thesis (more on this big thing later) procrastination, I have compiled an ideal playlist of prom awesomeness, or at least idiosyncratic-ness.

If you are a Spotify user, you can listen to the whole playlist here. Or just check out the youtube links.

Anyways, here's the list with pithy commentary.

Gotta start strong, and some Sly Stone retrofitted with B3 organ, violin, and energy bursting at the seams fits the bill.

As per the rules for mixtapes set down by "High Fidelity," you gotta kick it up a notch on the 2nd track. This one's probably the catchiest punk anthem out there, with the right groove for those hilarious "Breakfast Club" dance moves.

To bring things back a bit, we spin this groovy neo-soul number, complete with sick horn battle. From my cover band experience, this baby keeps the bodies shaking, even at low temperatures.

Big voice? Deep grooves? Yes and yes. No brainer here.

Frere Monk - Duke Ellington
Yeah, we kick it old school around here. This one swings rul hard.

We also kick it international. Nigerian boogie, circa 1979. Teens are about the most unsubtle people on the planet, so why not put on a song with a most unsubtle lyric?

A pitch-perfect teen anthem, via Wes Anderson's pitch-perfect teen movie, Rushmore.

Little known fact: mandolins can groove as hard as booming kick drums. This one's a case in point.

Same thing goes for fiddle and cello. These were probably played at high school proms through 1900, so why not bring them back?

Love and Anger - Theo Bleckmann
Kate Bush's original is good too, but this one just has that organic bounce that so much dance music lacks. I don't care if the volume may be a little low. It just makes the groove experience warm and inviting, rather than cold and declarative (i.e. dance or else!)

Another one with a big voice and a deep groove. Plus epic harmonica!

I love it when DJ's spin it because it grooves harder than anything else they play. I hate it when bands cover it because they can't match the groove. So these cats just do it their own way and make it a super-jam. Perfect for keeping everyone moving for a good 10 minutes straight.

This is when the band/DJ fucks with the crowd a bit. Greasy half-time funk shuffle that then reveals itself to be in 9. Whoops.

The cheeky spurned love anthem with a hefty dose of soul. A great bit of ironic fun for this situation.

Over the top, just like stereotypical teenage behavior. Except this song does it in all the right ways.

Prismatica - Craig Taborn
We continue to venture in crazy electronic territory and begin the sonic overload. Also, the song gets 1000 bonus points for making the viola sound positively badass. Good job, Mat Maneri.

Again, I'm really into this whole "organic groove" thing. Vijay, Stephen Crumb, and Marcus Gilmore have that in spades. And here they keep it to 4/4 to allow even the most uncoordinated of young people to join the fun.

Sonic overload complete.

Coming to the end of the night, gotta pull out all the stops. Chris Daddy Dave brings the fat groove and Stokley adds soaring vocals. The lyrics are simple, but really capture the messiness of this whole time in life.

A little too depressing for a cathartic penultimate number? Not with the Bad Plus cover. Grooves in all the right ways, has these epic modulations, and orchestral chimes to boot. No better way to flush away one's high school life in song form.

And now we end the evening with the slow dance. Similar in bombastic poignance to the Smith's classic "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," (I'd rather die with you than live without you) but with a better tempo. Maybe it's all a bit excessive, but so is high school, and so especially are high school proms. The best possible ender.