fri 06/12/2019

Herbie Hancock, Barbican EFG London Jazz Festival review – the musical chameleon is still searching at 79 | reviews, news & interviews

Herbie Hancock, Barbican EFG London Jazz Festival review – the musical chameleon is still searching at 79

Herbie Hancock, Barbican EFG London Jazz Festival review – the musical chameleon is still searching at 79

Despite some longueurs, the multi-skilled bandleader remains an irresistibly joyful force

Hancock, not content with just 'being Herbie'William Ellis

When it comes to the true jazz legends capable of filling concert halls with faithful fans, whom jazz festival programmers can put on as headliners, the choice is dwindling. Herbie Hancock is one and he does; his Barbican concert is one of the big events of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival and it had been sold out for months.

Hancock’s entrance onto the Barbican stage was greeted with a loud roar. Two hours later, the final sequence of the tunes which one would expect had the complete packed house up on its feet, with the keytar-toting hero strutting his way through “Cantaloupe Island” followed by the extended encore “Chameleon”. Everything seemed right with the world as the 79-year old then shook any number of fans’ hands, thanked the adoring public and moved on to more of the same at the after-party.

And yet here have been some discordant responses to earlier concerts of the current month-long tour, mostly of European concert halls by Hancock’s quintet. In Vienna there were reports of a “fan” vociferously demanding that the group play more jazz. And in Munich, the local broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung’s critic panned the show, describing it as “unpalatable,” and as an “unstructured sequence of effects and circus numbers.”

To Hancock’s credit, he has no intention of getting stuck in a rut. Yes, there was a party to be had at this concert, but you had to wait for it. The delivery of the audience’s expectations happened alongside a continuing search for the new. And in the lengthy appreciations that Hancock gave of each of his four band members, he gave the strongest clue as to where he wants and expects such inspiration and ideas to come from. In essence, he is happy to allow free creative rein to his younger cohorts, and to let their performances be the focus. Rather than wanting to lead from the front himself, he is happy to revert to being sideman taking the occasional solo. The show becomes as much about them as it is about him.

Maybe that’s a problem. It is his show. And whereas they are musicians who are clearly of interest musically to Hancock, they are chosen for that rather than for any obvious charisma as performers. And maybe in the context of "his" show there is an understandable reticence on their part to draw in attention on themselves rather than their boss. Whatever the reasons, to me there were definitely some longueurs in this show.


The most varied and potent force Hancock has alongside him in the band is Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueké (pictured left by Jean-Baptiste Millot), whom Hancock described last night as having the creativity of “nine different people in one body.” The story of their very first meeting is testament to the fact that Hancock’s fascination and admiration for Loueké started strong and has remained undiminished. It bears re-telling: Loueké had presented himself as an audition candidate for what was then the Monk Institute, and Herbie’s appraisal was: “How about I just take Lionel on the road and we forget about the Monk Institute?” Loueké’s range of guitar and vocal sounds is astonishing. He was given extended features both as instrumentalist and vocalist and does indeed take the band off in unexpected directions. And when he makes his guitar sound like Hancock’s keyboard synth, it can be – presumably deliberately – disorientating.

Bassist James Genus is one of those gold-standard players. Every touch of the instrument counts and means something. He almost shrugs indifferently as he delivers jaw-dropping virtuosity high up the fingerboard. One problem he had last night, however, was that he was not always caught very clearly in the sound mix, at least from where I sat.

As rhythmic company Genus has drummer Justin Tyson, whom Hancock described as having been either “borrowed” or “stolen” from Robert Glasper. Tyson can sometimes play with finesse and has a high level of jazz responsiveness, but his core volume and intensity level are quite high. There is the rock legacy of, say, John Bonham or Simon Phillips in his sound as much as any jazz antecedents. His backbeat is insistent, not to say uncompromising. And anyone expecting him to underpin a track like “Cantaloupe Island” with the delicacy which Tony Williams does on the 1964 original would be sorely disappointed.

Flautist/ singer Elena Pinderhughes is a name to watch. She is still in her mid-twenties and is a wonderfully fluent improviser, but in a band where every other instrument can deploy a huge range of intensity and volume from low to high, the flute’s limitations are apparent.

Herbie Hancock refuses to succumb to the temptation of becoming his own tribute act or of turning the show into a mere celebration of "being Herbie". But when he does, finally, take the lead, he is an irresistibly joyful force.

@sebscotney

There was a party to be had at this concert, but you had to wait for it

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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