Hancock is one of the few living jazz musicians who has enjoyed significant commercial success while also retaining a full measure of artistic credibility. Since his start in the mid-1960s as part of Miles Davis' storied quintet, Hancock has established himself as one of the top pianists of his generation, performing with many jazz greats and maintaining a thriving career as a leader for nearly 50 years. He's also been known as a technological innovator, helping to pioneer the use of electronic keyboards and synthesizers in jazz.
Hancock's 1973 album Head Hunters, considered a landmark of jazz-funk and fusion, remains one of the best-selling jazz records of all time, right behind Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck's Time Out. Hancock's most recent albums Possibilities (2005), River: The Joni Letters (2007) and The Imagine Project (2010) have featured a variety of guest musicians and vocalists drawn from pop, rock, hip-hop and world music, serving to introduce him to a new generation of younger listeners.
His last St. Louis appearance was in 2005 at The Pageant, where Hancock and an all-star band kicked off the Headhunters 2005 tour. This time around, the pianist is bringing a much smaller group, once again featuring guitarist Lionel Loueke, along with a new rhythm section of bassist James Genus (who played here a few years ago with trumpeter Dave Douglas at the St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival) and drummer Trevor Lawrence, Jr..
Hancock hasn't released much information on the repertoire for this tour, and with this configuration of musicians, he could draw easily on almost any phase of his career. So, today we're simply serving up a six-pack of extended live versions of some of his most famous compositions, recorded at various periods in his career with different groups of musicians.
First up is a rendition of "Maiden Voyage," one of Hancock's first compositions to become something of a standard, that was recorded October 23, 1988 at a jazz festival in Hamburg, Germany. The band includes Buster Williams on bass, Al Foster on drums, and St. Louis' own Greg Osby on saxophones.
Down below is another mid-1960s tune, "Cantaloupe Island," updated for a performance at the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival with Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Dave Holland (bass), Chris Potter (tenor sax), and Loueke.
Below that, there's a vintage clip from 1975 of the original touring version of the Headhunters (with Mike Clark on drums in place of Harvey Mason, who recorded the album but didn't do many live gigs) playing Hancock's most famous song, "Chameleon," for the PBS program Soundstage. In case you didn't know, the rest of the band is Bennie Maupin (tenor and soprano sax), Bill Summers (percussion), and Paul Jackson (bass).
Next up is another of Hancock's funk classics, "Hang Up Your Hangups," taped in 1979 for British TV by a later version of the Headhunters, with Maupin, Summers, Ray Obiedo on guitar, and what appears to be James Levi on drums.
After that, there's a version of "Rockit," Hancock's 1983 single that famously incorporated turntable scratching and other elements of hip-hop. The musicians aren't identified, and the performance is undated, but looking at the instruments used, such as the Simmons drums, and the clothing and hairstyles, it seems to come from near the time of the record's original release.
Last but certainly not least, there's an updated version of another of Hancock's most enduring songs, "Watermelon Man," which originally was something of a hit for both him and percussionist Mongo Santamaria back in the 1960s, and then was remade a decade later in a new funky version for Head Hunters. This take of the tune, recorded for Elvis Costello's TV program Spectacle, dates from the late 2000s and combines aspects of both arrangements. That's Christian McBride on bass and Trevor Lawrence Jr. on drums accompanying Hancock.