Friday, June 10, 2005

Headhunters 2005 are rough but ready

The co-winners of the Most Valuable Headhunter award for tour stop #1
drummer Terri Lynn Carrington and saxophonist Kenny Garrett.

Keyboardist and composer Herbie Hancock debuted the 2005 edition of the Headhunters last night here at the Pageant in St. Louis. As I've written here before, Hancock presumably chose St. Louis as the first stop on the band's short summer tour because of its proximity to Tennessee and the Bonnaroo Festival, where he'll serve as artist-in-residence this year. He mentioned between songs that the band had been in St. Louis for the last three days, said they'd enjoyed their time here, and thanked everyone for their "St. Louis hospitality."

Seeing Hancock again was a real treat for me. He was one of the first jazz piano players I really got into in a serious way, and he's remained high in my personal pantheon of keyboard heroes. Also, though he's made a lot of great music in the various phases of his career, I've always particularly dug the Headhunters material. The concert itself was marred by some sound problems, and a few rough spots typical for a brand new group finding its stage legs, but overall I think the Headhunters 2005 proved themselves more than worthy of the name emblematic of Hancock's funk-jazz legacy.

Though I did take a few notes, cameras were not allowed, so, alas, no pictures. And since I was there mostly to listen and enjoy myself, what follows isn't so much a formal review of the concert as it is a few general impressions and a rundown of the set list with some additional comments.

* The Headhunters 2005 show is not a Herbie Hancock solo joint, but a true ensemble work. Though Herbie, serving as master of ceremonies and conductor, was clearly in charge, he gave lots of solo space to saxophonist Kenny Garrett, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and guitarists John Mayer and Lionel Loueke. Bassist Marcus Miller, percussionist Munyungo Jackson and drummer Terri Lynn Carrington all got their own feature spots, too. Hancock remarked at one point that the stage was full of bandleaders, but all the musicians appeared to be having a lot of fun and enthusiastically embracing the funk ensemble concept.

* John Mayer didn't do anything especially rockstar-like, but he held his own with this all-star group of jazz musicians, playing rhythm guitar, working the groove and soloing effectively when called upon. He's tall and lanky, with longer hair than in many photos I've seen but the same baby face, and was dressed regular-dude style in t-shirt, nondescript pants and sneakers. When he sang his solo vocal of the night, a certain contingent of young female audience members perked up both visibly and audibly, but for the most part, he acted and was treated like just another member of the band.

* Speaking of looks, Hancock looks darned good for a man in his early sixties. Though he has, as one would expect, filled out a bit since the first time I saw him in 1975 - so have I, for that matter - he looks fit and healthy, with an unlined face and very few visible gray hairs. The guy could easily pass for someone ten or fifteen years younger than his actual age. He seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, the performances of the other musicians, and the crowd's response.

* The sound quality, sad to say, left a lot to be desired, mostly because Herbie's piano and synths were badly distorted and/or muddy at many crucial points throughout the night. On the plus side, the bass, drums and percussion were powerful and crisp-sounding, and the solos by Garrett and Hargrove cut through the mix with no problem, as did most of the single-note parts and leads from the guitarists. Herbie's upper-register, single-note runs were mostly audible, but when he'd add in some left-hand harmonies or a synth part underneath, it seemed to overwhelm something in the signal chain and the result was just plain nasty. Hancock's sound seemed to improve a bit in spots throughout the night, but it never was as good as what one would hope for and expect. It seems to me that if you're the person responsible for sound at a Herbie Hancock concert, the most important part of your job is to make sure that people can hear Herbie Hancock really well, so I trust this will be rectified rather quickly at the next tour stop.

The band hit the stage about a half-hour after the announced starting time, with Jackson heralding the beginning of the show via the blown-shell introduction to "Watermelon Man." I guess since this is one of two songs that are absolutely mandatory for any band calling itself the Headhunters, it made sense for them to start with it. But at first, the mix was a little off, and the band wasn't quite together on some of the hits and stabs. Once they settled into the familiar groove, all the musicians seemed visibly relieved, and they went through short but tasty solos by all the front line musicians in turn before wrapping it up.

Next up was a tune from Hancock's upcoming album Possibilities, which will feature Mayer and a bunch of other guest stars. I didn't catch the name, but it was basically a two-chord Afro-Cuban vamp, not unlike the one in Santana's "Smooth," and that similarity was enhanced when Mayer started tossing off some guitar licks that sounded a lot like Carlos. Loueke sang some lyrics in (I believe) French in a husky but pleasant voice, and the song had a nice groove, but, lacking the fiendish hook overkill of the Santana tune, it wasn't particularly memorable, at least at first hearing.

The next song was announced by Hancock as a Marcus Miller feature, and the bassist and Carrington kicked off with a funky riff that seemed oddly familiar, yet I knew it wasn't one of Herbie's tunes. A few seconds later, the answer was evident: they were playing Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," edited and rearranged into a sort of Reader's Digest only-the-hooks version, with Miller taking most of the signature synth licks on the bass. They opened up the tune in the middle for a series of solos, but, sadly for us Seventies music purists, did not attempt to replicate the signature exchange of tom-tom licks at the end of Winter's version. Still, it was fun to hear, and a surprising but clever choice.

Next up was another tune from Possibilities, a John Mayer vocal feature called "Stitch Me Up." This was an enjoyable midtempo funky groove with a little bit of a New Orleans feel, as both the song and Mayer's vocals reminded me of some of the funk stuff I've heard Harry Connick do. Herbie contributed a solo and some nice fills, but this was one of the shorter numbers of the evening. Live, it sounded like at least a semi-plausible candidate for some radio airplay in smooth jazz and AA formats, but I'd have to hear the recorded version to make a definitive assessment.

Next up was an extended version of "Spider". Long solos, more sound problems with Hancock's keyboard. The band was grooving really hard - though some of the ensemble unison licks could have been a little tighter - and everyone was having a good time, but it was frustrating not be able to hear Herbie better.

For the next tune, Marcus Miller put down his bass and picked up his bass clarinet to join Garrett on soprano and Hargrove on fluegelhorn for a lush-sounding harmonized rendering of the melody of "Butterfly." Once the head was done, he picked up the bass again and the band continued pretty much along the lines of the recorded arrangement. Good solos by Garrett and Hargrove and, overall, very nicely done, though again the keyboard sound distorted at some critical points.

A long version of another Headhunters classic, "Actual Proof," followed, and the band, by now up and running at full speed, did a good job with the tricky stop-start arrangement and multiple changes in the groove. Loueke soloed using some sort of synth guitar sound that sounded something like a combo organ, and the end result reminded me a bit of records I've heard of Sun Ra wailing away on a Farfisa - an eccentric approach to the groove and harmony, to be sure, but I liked it.

Then, the rest of the band left the stage while Loueke did a brief solo number on guitar and vocals. The audience seemed to collectively realize that this was beginning of the run-up to the finish, and so took the opportunity to order drinks, visit the bathroom, and otherwise treat the number like an in-show intermission. Truth be told, though, it was hard to see how a song featuring just guitar and voice could be expected to hold people's attention after some of the massive funk grooves and head-spinning solos that preceded it. There was nothing really wrong with the tune, but I think it might work better at a different spot in the show.

As Loueke finished up, the rest of the band returned to the stage, and Carrington and Miller kicked off the familiar groove of the other mandatory Headhunters classic, "Chameleon." This was another extended version that followed the template of the record, but stretched out the solos quite a bit, resulting in an overall length of close to 20 minutes. The highlight for me was a blistering alto solo by Garrett, who walked the line between avant garde and gutbucket as he just kept pushing the tension higher and higher with each turnaround into a new 16-bar increment. Garrett was so hot on this solo that while he was playing, Hargrove was visibly cracking up, dancing around, and pointing at him, and at one point even did the old bit of stage business where you pretend to fan a guy with a towel in order to cool him down.

This was really the emotional payoff point of the show, and it was hard to see how they could top it. The band left the stage, but after just a couple minutes of applause, returned for an encore, which turned out to be one of my personal favorite Hancock tunes, "Hang Up Your Hangups." Mayer soloed very effectively on this tune, but again, some of the ensemble parts were a little loose, and at a couple of points it sounded like not everyone went to the B section at quite the same time. Still, a little bit of slop can't kill the true funk, and I was quite glad they decided to do this particular tune.

Given that this edition of the band came together to play the Bonnaroo festival, it might make sense to think of the Headhunters 2005 as Herbie Hancock's version of a jam band. It would be really interesting to hear them again at the end of the tour in ten days or so, when they've had time to work out the sound kinks and tighten up the few dicey bits of the show. But even with those quibbles, this was a very entertaining concert, with some excellent musicians enthusiastically interpreting some of the most enduring material the funk-jazz genre has produced.

My vote for most valuable player, at least on this night, has to be split between Garrett, who was absolutely on fire on several of his solos, and Carrington, who had the crucial yet underappreciated task of maintaining a driving funk groove for almost two and half hours. I've heard some of her recorded work playing behind other artists, and had seen her when she was part of the house band on Arsenio Hall's TV talk show, so I knew she could play. But I have a whole new level of respect for Carrington after last night - behind a drum kit, the woman is one badass funk machine who can also solo and fill very creatively. Though I can think of some other drummers who might have done the same job as well, I can't think of a single one who could have done it better.

(edited 5/16/05 to fix typos)

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