2. Actual Proof
3. Watermelon Man (7 Teens)
4. Stitched Up
5. Virgin Forest
6. Maiden Voyage
7. I Just Called to Say I Love You
8. When Love Comes to Town
9. Cantaloupe Island
Herbie Hancock: keyboards, piano
Lionel Loueke: electric guitars, vocal
Nathan East: electric bass, vocal
Vinnie Colaiutia: drums
You’d think from reading this blog that we are the type of people who go out a lot. Ha! In fact, we’re notorious for buying tickets to events and then bagging out at the last minute. Over the past few years, it had gotten to the point where we wouldn’t even pretend that we’d go – might as well just save the money. But, maybe that has changed - certainly working downtown makes it a lot easier to enjoy a night on the town. The bottom line is: art and music make life worth living. So, when we realized on Monday that this concert had not sold out, we decided to go ahead and get tickets - decent seats at that, towards the middle of the balcony.
We’d heard some European FM broadcasts of Herbie’s recent gigs, so we knew what to expect: a cooking band that can both swing the modal jazz and lay down the serious funk, enabling Herbie to explore both his electronic and acoustic instruments. How could we resist? Herbie Hancock is one of my big-time childhood heroes: I adored the Headhunters stuff and, through that, I got into Miles Davis. Well, from then on, my life was forever changed. Yet, I’d never actually seen Herbie in person, so I was excited to get the chance, right here in Nashville, at the fabulous Ryman Auditorium.
Unfortunately, Herbie’s electronic rig was plagued by “gremlins” (as he put it) for the first couple of numbers, but he deftly managed to keep things moving on the piano while his keyboard tech got things working again. I was a little surprised at how chatty Herbie was – it was almost like standup comedy between tunes. He was laugh-out-loud funny! One the one hand, Herbie is the epitome of “cool,” yet his demeanor is soft-spoken, maybe even a little bit geeky. He was altogether charming – and his playing was always superbly elegant and tasteful.
Things really got going with “Watermelon Man,” which was interspersed with Lionel Loueke’s “7 Teens,” a weirdly grooving 17-beat figure. The vocal stuff from Herbie’s last record, Possibilities (Vector 2005), was perhaps a bit dubious, although bassist Nathan East did an admirable job with the songs. Much to my surprise, Herbie’s “re-composition” of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was actually pretty effective – really! But, no matter what the material, you always could count on Herbie to take a thoughtful and evocative solo every time.
“Virgin Forest” featured a lengthy solo segment by guitarist Lionel Loueke which combined artful electronics with African finger-style guitar playing with percussive mouth-sounds and wordless singing. It was an impressive tour de force that had the audience utterly entranced. I should note that the crowd was enthusiastic yet attentive. During quiet sections, you could hear a pin drop. Nice!
Herbie introduced “Maiden Voyage” by revealing that he wrote the tune when he was 22 years old for a Yardley men’s cologne commercial. (I didn’t know that!) It was subsequently recorded in its definitive form for Blue Note Records in 1965 and has gone on to become an enduring jazz standard. His solo performance here was a radical re-working of the material, beginning with a chorale of synthesized voices which then segued into a delicate and impressionistic piano improvisation that merely hinted around that simple but classic melody. It was stunningly beautiful and perhaps the highlight of the evening for me.
“Chameleon” was the predictable encore, but it was a magnificent, epic version. Herbie started out trading licks with the rest of the band on his strap-on keyboard before heading to the piano for an elaborate, episodic solo that gradually built up to a wildly ecstatic climax. Phenomenal!
Now, it’s true that I’ve never been a huge fan of Vinnie Colaiuta - his overtly virtuosic technique can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Infinite subdivisions of the beat and relentlessly complicated fills can get to be a bit much. But, I think he’s matured as a musician since his time with Frank Zappa (and Joni Mitchell!) way back in the 1980s. He’s still not the most subtle drummer by any means, but he offered sympathetic and inventive support in this context. Certainly everyone on stage seemed to be having a lot of fun and that really came through in the performance.
And it was a very generous performance – two and half hours with no intermission and no “warm-up” band. We left feeling like we’d gotten more than our money’s worth and it was definitely pretty special to see a living legend in the flesh. Herbie said they’d begun making a record, which should be pretty interesting since he has not made a record with his “working band” in a long time. Look for that to come out in October.
It was very satisfying night out.