For a musician who's been around as long as Herbie Hancock, part of the challenge of each new tour can be just figuring out what to play. If there’s a new record to promote, the process can be as straightforward as picking the best stuff from the album and assembling it into a set list. Without that, though, someone with a catalog as deep as Hancock’s will have some difficult choices to make.
This time around, the veteran keyboardist and composer (pictured) has opted for what’s basically a modified “greatest hits” approach, concentrating on his funk material from the 1970s, but also nodding briefly to what came immediately before and after. His concert on Sunday night at the Touhill Performing Arts Center featured relatively few songs, but, befitting an event billed as “An Evening With Herbie Hancock and His Band,” gave Hancock and his sidemen ample chance to stretch out for nearly two and half hours.
After a brief intro by Gene Dobbs Bradford, head of the show's presenter Jazz St. Louis, drummer Trevor Lawrence, Jr. was first on stage, setting up a beat for bassist James Genus to join in. A brief bit of funkifizing ensued, and then guitarist Lionel Loueke followed, serving up some rhythmic skronk suggesting the influence of Sonny Sharrock or early Arto Lindsay. That proved to be something of a fakeout, though, as once Hancock entered from stage left (to cheers from the near-capacity crowd), the groove morphed into “Actual Proof,” from Hancock’s 1974 release Thrust.
It’s a tricky number – “filled with potholes,” as Hancock told the crowd once the song was done - and this version was spirited but a bit muddled, with bass dominating the mix and Hancock’s keyboards, particularly the grand piano, not loud enough. As a result, the impact of Hancock’s lengthy solo was somewhat blunted. Overall, though the energy level was high and Genus demonstrated some impressive technique in his solo, it didn’t quite gel as well as one might have hoped.
Next up was a medley of “Seven Teens,” a Loueke composition, and the arrangement of “Watermelon Man” from the 1973 album Head Hunters. Talking about the former, Hancock said that while it was written in 17, the band had “dropped a beat” to make it easier to play; the result sounded a bit like a tricked-out blues shuffle via west Africa. The tune was short, though, segueing quickly into “Watermelon Man,” which featured another long Genus solo, this time over a loop of himself playing the underlying groove. It also gave Hancock a chance to strap on his Roland AX-Synth controller and step out from behind his keyboard rig to trade licks with Genus, who by now was more in balance, volume-wise, with the rest of the band. Lawrence provided a nice pocket throughout, deep enough that you almost didn’t notice the absence of the extra percussion parts that flavored the original recording.
Hancock broke out his vocoder for the next tune, “Come Running To Me,” a mid-tempo groove from his 1978 album Sunshine, which generally was not considered one of his more successful efforts of that era. The vocoder helped Hancock “sing” the lyrics, and the effect, though not unpleasant, wasn’t particularly startling or memorable, either. The song’s coda became a nice showcase for Loueke’s solo improvisation, as he sang into a vocal harmonizer that turned his voice into a one-man chorus, much to the delight of the crowd.
After another chat with the audience, mostly devoted to plugging UNESCO’s designation of April 30 as “International Jazz Day,” Hancock sat down at the grand piano for an extended solo improvisation. His classical background alluded to briefly by a bit that sounded like Bartok and a soupçon of French impressionist harmonies, Hancock then spent a good bit of time playing with a four-note motif that sounded like nothing so much as the beginning of Nat “King” Cole’s “Mona Lisa.” (Cole’s birthday was last week, and he was still alive and working when Hancock started his career, so perhaps it was a subtle tribute of sorts?) After a bit more meandering, Hancock then proceeded to tease at the melody line and changes of another famous composition, his own “Maiden Voyage,” taking it through a number of permutations and key changes.
Ultimately, instead of playing a full-on version of that tune, Hancock was rejoined by the other three musicians for a group improvisation that turned into an extended version of “Cantaloupe Island,” featuring satisfying, lengthy solos from himself, Genus and Loueke, plus some nice broken-time drum breaks from Lawrence.
The encore began with a version of Hancock’s hip-hop flavored 1983 hit “Rockit” that can only be described as perfunctory, perhaps cut short due to technical problems, as Hancock seemed to be having difficulties with the vocoder rig. This was followed immediately by an uptempo, extended version of “Chameleon” that featured Hancock jamming out at length on his strap-on keyboard, trading licks with Genus, then settling down again behind the grand for the song’s concluding section.
Overall, though the songlist may have been familiar, Hancock and company seem committed to keeping the material fresh by playing in the moment, and on this night the resulting momentum and their musicianship were more than enough to carry the concert successfully through any slight lulls.
A few additional notes:
* Hancock, who last appeared in St. Louis in 2005, will turn 72 next month, but looked healthy, fit, and barely different from when he was here seven years ago. Is it just a result of success and clean living, a byproduct of the calm induced by his Buddhist faith, or does he have a Dorian Gray-style portrait stashed in an attic somewhere?
* The keyboardist spent a good deal of time talking with the audience between songs, at one point namechecking two St. Louis musicians - his old employer Miles Davis, and Davis' fellow trumpeter and early mentor Clark Terry.
* James Genus clearly is an excellent bass player, but he's also rather busy in his approach. During this show, the bassist's big sound and plethora of licks seemed to fill a lot of the audio spectrum that otherwise might have been occupied by Loueke. It may be a cliche that funk depends on syncopated interplay between sound and silence, but to these ears, several of the grooves played on Sunday would have been made even funkier by incorporating a little more space into the music's low end.
* For the hard-core Hancockians, there was one thing missing: the Rhodes piano, from which Hancock was able to get a distinctive sound that served as a signature for him throughout the 1970s and beyond. While all the 21st century technology deployed onstage was impressive enough in its way, there’s no real substitute for hearing Herbie spank that electric piano over a funky backbeat.
Edited after posting to add the correct name of the original album featuring the song "Actual Proof," correct the name of "International Jazz Day" and to add another end note.