Herbie Hancock stirs up a storm of sound – Chicago Tribune
Was it jazz? Rock? Pop? Funk? Fusion? Techno?
All the above, really, since that was Herbie Hancock on stage Saturday night in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center.
Never one to play it safe, Hancock led his quartet through a range of musical languages, sometimes provocatively, sometimes too loudly, but always with fervency of expression and seriousness of purpose.
Listeners hoping to hear acoustic Hancock in a straight-ahead jazz manner didnât get much of that, his band leaning heavily on synthesized sound, novel sonic effects and pulsing rhythmic backdrop. But very few listeners left the intermission-less show, at least in the main-floor area where I was seated. On the contrary, the audience responded enthusiastically to music that challenged preconceptions about how compositions performed by a jazz musician ought to proceed.
Then again, this was a hometown crowd welcoming a native Chicagoan to the place that launched Hancockâs career: He played a movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in this hall in 1952, when he was 11.
At 77, he showed no signs of slowing down.
âFeels like home,â Hancock told the house as he walked on stage.
âHey, Chicago, whatâs happening?â he then asked, the crowdâs roar suggesting everyone was primed for a night with a musician who has sung this cityâs praises around the globe for roughly half a century.
When they got down to music-making, Hancock and friends offered expansive, free-ranging, densely textured performances that were more improvised than composed, more about atmosphere and mood than theme and development. These werenât so much songs as tableaux in which tempo, meter, color, tone and musical direction were constantly in flux. In the end, each composition was just a starting point for Hancockâs experiments in harmony, dissonance, rhythm and eruptions of digitally produced sounds.
The quartet opened with a kind of sprawling overture establishing the eveningâs terms of engagement. Hancockâs guitar-like riffs on electronic keyboard, Terrace Martinâs sighs and cries on vocoder (which transforms the sound of the human voice), James Genusâ throbbing lines on bass guitar and Vinnie Colaiutaâs relentless attacks on drums foreshadowed the central obsession of this evening: energy.
Hancock turned the clock back to the 1970s with âActual Proof,â from his Headhunters band, but there was nothing nostalgic about this performance. Essentially taking dual roles, Hancock quickly switched back and forth from electronic keyboard to Fazioli grand, his pungent splashes of high-tech sound alternating with massive piano chords, all powered by funk flavor from the rest of the band. Hancockâs acoustic piano solo stood out, not only for the sheer duration of his essay but for the cogency of his argument. Even amid a hurricane of ensemble sound, Hancock offered a profusion of ideas articulated boldly across the full range of the piano.
Add to this Martinâs zigzag lines on alto saxophone and Genusâ perpetual motion riffs on electric bass, and you had enough sound and motif to ponder for days.
The quartet pushed out further still in âCome Running to Me,â from Hancockâs late-1970s album âSunlight.â Hancock unfurled synthesized vocals of his own in unison with his lines on keyboard, while Martin harmonized on vocoder. The ethereal character of this music, free-flowing nature of its melodies and heady, trippy ambience conjured a dreamy, futuristic soundscape of a sort not often encountered in the home of the CSO.
This high-tech brand of impression permeated âSecret Sauce,â which inspired Hancock to play a trancelike keyboard solo at one moment, fast-flying figurations on keytar the next.
Hancockâs signature âCantaloupe Islandâ opens with one of the most seductive ostinatos in jazz, and perhaps it was the historic nature of the tune that inspired him to produce here a hardcore jazz piano solo â without venturing into distant genres. This cadenza reminded listeners that, yes, Hancock can build an intricate, cohesive acoustic-piano solo when so inclined.
He just doesnât wish to do that very often, preferring to use his array of gadgetry to take his audience into uncharted musical realms.
Which may be why on this night, and most others, he came across as just about the youngest septuagenarian youâre likely to hear.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.