Once a Headhunter, always a headhunter. Jazz keyboardist and composer Herbie Hancock is still recruiting young collaborators, and at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday night, he was fully energized, leading a high-wattage quartet that sent volleys of funk beats ricocheting off the walls.
Pity those who turned up hoping that at least one acoustic solo piano performance would offer some sonic relief. Maybe next time.
Echoes of the Headhunters, Hancock’s groundbreaking ’70s fusion jazz ensemble, were plentiful, with an imaginatively overhauled version of “Chameleon” recalling its glory days. The 71-year-old spent much of the two-hour concert swiveling between a grand piano and a synthesizer.
But he often strapped on a portable “keytar” synth and engaged guitarist Lionel Loueke, electric guitar bassist James Genus and drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. in jousting exchanges. When the time finally came to fire off his 1983 hit “Rockit,” Hancock was all smiles, reveling in the rebooted funk.
His acoustic virtuosity was evident on the opener “Actual Proof,” but this was not an evening in which Hancock would emphasize the more subdued and lyrical side of his repertoire. Hammered chords and sweeping chromatic runs often led to dramatic crescendos, and the Grammy-winning keyboardist took obvious delight in harmonically tweaking arrangements with dissonant jabs.
A medley of his classic “Watermelon Man” and Loueke’s impossibly tricky, odd-meter tune “Seven Teens” was a delightful example, nimbly juxtaposing vintage soul-jazz grooves with world beat exotica.
Loueke earned a solo spot that showcased his remarkable fingerstyle prowess, rhythmic ingenuity and engaging wit. In group settings, the unusual sounds Loueke coaxed from his guitar were offset by familiar 16th-note-driven funk patterns that contributed to the band’s powerful thrust.
Why Hancock is again using a vocoder, a voice-altering gadget he helped popularize in the late ’70s, is anyone’s guess. He deployed the device when resurrecting “Come Running to Me,” a slight pop artifact. If any tune should have been shelved in favor of something that would reveal Hancock’s flair for elegantly reharmonizing a pop standard without accompaniment, this was it.
Presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, the concert ended with a series of standing ovations. But even so, it wasn’t hard to empathize with the fan who shouted out a final request during the full-tilt encores: “Play some acoustic piano, Herbie!”
Joyce is a freelance writer.