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.