By Don Heckman
Herbie Hancock celebrated his 70th birthday Wednesday night with a stage full of musicians eager to share in the festivities, as well as a near capacity crowd of equally enthusiastic listeners spread across the far limits of the Hollywood Bowl.
That’s a bigger event than most of us can hope for at our anniversary milestones. And it was certifiable evidence that Hancock’s efforts to spread his career beyond the territories of jazz in which he spent his younger years have met with the sort of success that is rare in the jazz world. A high visibility jazz figure for decades, he has become, in the past few decades, an entertainment world icon, as well.
Underscoring that beyond-boundaries status, the happy birthday program was divided into two parts. The first featured Hancock in a stellar jazz setting, performing with long-time musical companion Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, bassist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Jack DeJohnette and – for one number – electric bassist Nathan East. The second half focused upon material from his recently released CD, The Imagine Project – described by Hancock as an effort to reach toward world peace through music.
The jazz segment — in which selections ranged from the opening piece, Shorter’s “Footprints,” to Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” “Eye of the Hurricane” and “Canteloupe Island” — was state of the art, without breaking any new boundaries. Despite their differences in style, the epigrammatic approach Shorter’s been applying to his improvisations in recent years nonetheless seemed to find common ground with Blanchard’s more mainstream-oriented method.
But the most engaging moments of the jazz segment took place during the passages in which Hancock, Spalding and DeJohnette played together, essentially as a piano trio. Each seemed both challenged and stimulated by the other, with the youthful Spalding the touchstone sparking her older companions into ever more intriguing musical areas. In this setting, Hancock was the adventurous, improvisationally probing artist jazz fans have known and loved since his early years with Miles Davis in the ‘60s.
The program’s second half was a different matter. Beginning with The New Standard in the mid-‘90s and climaxing (thus far) with 2008’s Grammy Album of the Year winner, River, Hancock has continually widened his creative perspectives to encompass pop songs and pop musicians. With The Imagine Project he’s spread the net even wider, including international musicians and recording in world wide locations.
Given the breadth of the album and its participants, Hancock could only manage a broad sampling of its selections. But it was an impressive sampling, nonetheless: India.Arie and Kristina Train singing a passionate – if a bit edgy — rendering of “Imagine”; Zakir Hussain, Niladri Kumar and Wayne Shorter performing “The Song Goes On” (apparently with a pre-recorded vocal track by South Indian singer K.S. Chithra); a crowd pleasing “La Tierra” by Colombian vocal star, Juanes; Lisa Hannigan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’”; the Debbie Allen Dancers cavorting to Tinariwen’s track of ‘Tatamant/Tilay”; and Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks romping through “Space Captain.”
Where was the birthday boy in the midst of all this action? Keeping busy, moving from his rich-sounding Fazioli to a synth, to an over the shoulder slung keyboard, adding his unique touch to the eclectic array of sounds and rhythms. Combined with his work in the opening set, it was an extraordinary display of creative versatility. Five years past the traditional retirement age, Herbie Hancock just keeps getting better.
Photo by Tony Gieske.