Reviews & Opinions
Jazz Road Trip: HERBIE HANCOCK IN BUFFALO
Oct. 9, Buffalo Center for the Performing Arts
In near darkness upon the stage, Vinnie Colaiuta slipped behind his drum kit and began laying down a menacingly funky grove. With the drums firmly establishing the groove for one minute, James Genus proved why he’s the bassist of choice for the SNL band by joining in with funk that was also accentuated with hubristic attitude. Soon thereafter, guitarist Lionel Loueke unassumingly joined the pair to… well… do that thing that only Lionel can do. It was becoming clear that once leader Herbie Hancock joined his band, that this probably wasn’t going to be the night for hearing Maiden Voyage. Or was it?
Hancock is one of those jazz musicians who can be maddening for the casual jazz fan. They hear something from the Maiden Voyage album on the radio, take an innocent gamble, and buy the Mwandishi album. Whoops! Or the radio plays something hip from the Rockit album and they end up purchasing the Gershwin’s World album (who the heck is this Gershwin guy, anyway?). Whoops again. Hancock probably said it best himself with a tune from his 1973 Head Hunters album: chameleon. The guy has huge ears and if you’re going to buy his music, it’s best that you do your homework beforehand, lest you be shocked and disappointed.
Herbie's space ship.
When Hancock finally appeared on the stage, to thunderous applause, he sat at a 270 degree arc of various keyboards that brought to mind the cover to his 1974 Thrust album (minus the spaceship, of course). Although, there probably were more feet of cables and wires connecting all of the instruments than could be found in an Apollo-era capsule. While this opening tune, Actual Proof, was from the height of his synthesizer period, the bulk of his soloing was done on the full size grand piano at the center or his keyboard arsenal. Taking the hand-off like a seasoned track star, Loueke soloed as though he had grown up with this music. Considering the age difference between he and Hancock, he probably actually did grow up with it.
Benin vs. Watermelon Man.
The next number illustrated Hancock’s duality as well as anything. Watermelon Man could either appeal to the old folks who remember the Head Hunters LP from 1973 or the even older folks who recall it from Hancock’s Takin’ Off album from 1962. But of course this night’s version couldn’t mirror either of its predecessors and had to be yet another unique take on this classic tune. Being from the West African country of Benin, where rhythmic structure is much more interesting than most music in the states, Loueke’s 17/8 meter played against Hancock’s 4/4 meter in a deceptively natural manner. For the second time in the performance, the music had a groove deeper than a mine shaft. The crowd expressed its approval as Hancock arose from his seat, donned his keytar (a portable keyboard slug around the neck like a guitar) and strode to center stage to trade some blistering “eights” with bassist Genus.
Vocoder, synth & Loueke.
1978’s Come Running To Me began awash with Hancock’s vocoder and synths in a quasi R&B mode with some luxurious grand piano soloing as a counterbalance. Once Loueke began his solo, the rest of the band eased out of the proceedings and completely off of the stage. What ensued was nearly incomprehensible. Loueke played solo for a solid five minutes. Well, my eyes told me it was solo but my ears beg to differ. His unique vocalizations, consisting of singing and rhythmic accompaniment (think Bobby McFerrin), along with his aforementioned rhythmic approach to guitar, where his fingers play the guitar strings melodically as well as like a drum, sounded like several musicians playing. It was truly a sight to behold (check him out on YouTube).
By this point, a number of those in attendance who were longing for Maiden Voyage and the original Watermelon Man began to leave. That was unfortunate, for they missed the highlight of the evening, which came next.
Not to be outdone by Loueke’s one-man demonstration, Hancock returned to the stage, seating himself at the piano. With veins of a classical piano concerto rising to the surface, his exploration of all eighty-eight keys ran the gamut from exquisite ruminations to storm waves crashing on a rocky Maine shoreline. Strains of Maiden Voyage appeared and vanished like the teasing of a habitual flirt. With one hand still on the piano and the other on the plugged in keyboards, electronics were soon being folded into the mix like spice to cinnamon bread. The improvisation ended exclusively with synthesizers. And there you had it; an encompassing history of the piano, from baroque to modern synth, before your very eyes in the course of twenty minutes. How could this masterful display not leave one thoroughly impressed?
The night ended with yet another favorite from his oeuvre, Chameleon. With his right hand reeling out the familiar melody, Hancock’s left hand was ringing out fat chords that resonated deep into the fillings in your teeth. As was the case all evening, Colaiuta’s playing was polyrhythmic and driving, but never became overbearing or obtrusive. Genus’ ostinato bass line anchored the piece, with his broad smile and closed eyes indicating that he was enjoying the groove and that we should too. Loueke’s percussive guitar began like the initial patter of springtime raindrops upon a canvas roof, gradually increasing in speed until a full-fledged shower of counter melody was washing over the stage.
After two-and-a-half hours, all of the musicians left the stage. The crowd was on its feet. Clap though they did, you knew that there was not going to be an encore. After one hundred and fifty minutes of jazz, funk, classical and R&B, there was absolutely nothing left unsaid.
For some samples of the work of members of this band, try these excerpts:
Hancock, Loueke,and Coliauta in 2009: "Watermelon Man."
James Genus with the Bob James Trio, featuring pianist James, drummer Billy Kilmer and Genus on Horace Silver's "Jody Grind." Hang around for Genus' solo. And don't forget the headphones!
Coming Up: Wayne Shorter Quartet!
And if you're thinking of a trip to Buffalo to catch some of the action, good thinking. Featured at the University of Buffalo's concert hall, North Campus, on November 21st will be the Wayne Shorter Quartet (Downbeat's best band, best composer, best soprano saxophonist, living legend in the 2013 Readers' Poll). Tickets $54, $46, $38. For information or to purchase tickets, visit www.ubcfa or call 866-820-4553.
By Gary Finney
November 12, 2013