By Don Heckman
It’s good to see Herbie Hancock occasionally step away from his office job as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz and take a seat, instead, at a keyboard. His official presence in a jazz advisory capacity has certainly had salutary effects upon the Phil’s perception of jazz. But so, too, has the adventurous music he’s brought to his performances. As he did Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
Hancock’s action-packed history as an iconic jazz artist embraces legendary musical associations (most notably with Miles Davis) as well as his own equally memorable and influential outings on albums such as Future Shock, Dis is Da Drum, Possibilities, River: the Joni Letters among dozens of others. And one of his common themes – reaching back to “Watermelon Man” at the start of his career – has been to balance his boundary-less jazz explorations with continuing forays across stylistic genres.
On Wednesday this tendency was manifest in the eight player ensemble Hancock organized to perform a collection of works focused on the principal of “Celebrating Peace.”
The group’s orientation reached from the solid jazz credentials of Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassists Dave Holland and Marcus Miller and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana to the tabla playing of Zakir Hussain, the sound design keyboard work of George Whitty and the vocals of pop soul singer Andy Vargas and versatile tenor Kalil Wilson. Topping it off – special guest, veteran rock guitarist Carlos Santana.
The result of all this creative firepower, coming at the music from different directions, tended to be atmospheric, rather than rhythmically and emotionally gripping in a traditional jazz sense. But there were high points in the creation of that continually unfolding atmosphere. Among them, a cover version – featuring Vargas – of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us”; a pyrotechnic drum exchange between Blackman Santana and Hussain in which each player used their unique talents to find common ground with the other – an intriguing approach to fusion; and Hancock’s sophisticated use of electronic devices, including the filtering of sound through his articulated vocal control.
Add to that the insertion of speech segments from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the opening work, which also combined elements of “Ode to Joy” and “Afro Blue”; stellar bass work, from the stinging electric accents of Miller to the rich acoustic playing of Holland; and the off-center solo encounters between Shorter’s saxophone and Santana’s guitar – not exactly a musical relationship made in heaven, despite their individual mastery.
So give Hancock a “B” for effort, the grade impacted by the unevenness of both the writing and the playing. Starting with a potentially workable concept/title – “Celebrating Peace” – the evening’s scattered, often fascinating, musical elements never quite came together with enough focus to bring the concept to life. Nonetheless, let’s hope that, in the coming season, Hancock continues to offer more piano-time to L.A. Phil audiences.
Photos by Bonnie Perkinson.