The tickets had just one name on them, but Herbie Hancock’s Tuesday show at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was definitely an ensemble performance. No one seemed to be enjoying that more than the 77-year-old bandleader himself. He beamed whenever one of the four other players demonstrated his virtuosity, and prefaced the two-hour concert — following a 20-minute opening jam — with lengthy comments on the musicians’ skills, reputations and personal lives.
Hancock didn’t need such an introduction, of course. A classical prodigy who turned to jazz, he was playing with Donald Byrd and Miles Davis when barely out of his teens. He’s a gifted composer as well as a musician, and has written songs and TV and movie scores as well as jazz standards. One of the first notable jazzmen to embrace the synthesizer, he moved toward a more accessible electro-funk style that culminated in a 1983 hit, the hip-hop-influenced “Rockit.” Since then, he’s looked both forward and backward, whether playing solo or collaborating with jazz, rock, electronic or African-folk musicians.
Tuesday’s show consisted mostly of older material, reaching as far back as 1964’s “Cantaloupe Island” and including three compositions from Hancock’s jazz-rock 1970s. All six pieces were stretched to between 15 and 20 minutes, with plenty of space for improvisation. Rock drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and funk bassist James Genus kept the music anchored, but that didn’t inhibit spacey or abstract passages.
Hancock often played grand piano, but most of the other sounds were electronically treated. That included the vocals, provided by Hancock, Beninese-born guitarist Lionel Loueke and keyboardist-saxophonist Terrace Martin. (Best known for his production work on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Martin is one of the producers of Hancock’s upcoming album.) Hancock sang identifiable words during “Come Running to Me,” but they were mutated by a vocoder, and most of the evening’s other vocals were scatted and altered. During one Loueke showcase, his distorted voice occupied the same trebly range as his guitar wailings and scrapings.
If there was a disadvantage to the band’s approach, it was that many of the excursions headed to roughly the same place. At their furthest from their essential grooves and melodies, the slinky “Cantaloupe Island” and the funky “Actual Proof” were essentially the same. One piece that held its shape was the encore, “Chameleon,” led by Hancock on keytar. With the guitar-shaped synthesizer around his neck, Hancock was able to move from the side to the center of the stage, interacting closely with the others. With most of the audience members jubilantly on their feet, Hancock dueled playfully with Loueke, demonstrating that he still knows how to rock it.