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At the Kennedy Center, Hancock’s well-worn tricks still surprise

The pianist kicked off his tour and gave funky, experimental character to jazz standards and his own tunes

Herbie Hancock, at the piano, performs at the Kennedy Center on June 10 with guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Justin Tyson. (Photos by Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)
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At the top of his Friday night concert at the Kennedy Center, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock readied the crowd for an unconventional performance. “This is the beginning of a two-and-a-half-month tour that we’re starting right here. That means you’re the guinea pigs,” he said. “We’re going to try out very strange, weird stuff, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Well, that’s the essence of improvised music, isn’t it? But the set wasn’t really that weird — not by Hancock’s standards, anyway. The lively, riveting performance leaned hard toward Hancock’s electronic jazz-funk experiments of the 1970s and ‘80s. Perhaps it wasn’t the stuff for jazz purists, but then again, purists buy tickets to a Hancock show knowing that they’re taking their chances.

Herbie Hancock stretches out and enjoys the jams at Kennedy Center

It did begin weirdly, though, with a whirlwind of sci-fi synth effects that took a few minutes to give way. Then trumpeter Terence Blanchard entered, surprising us with a chorus effect that made his horn sound like two but otherwise firmly in character. He kicked off a medley that included elements of “Speak Like A Child,” “Butterfly” and — in a truly unexpected moment led by guitarist Lionel Loueke — the 1983 pop hit “Rockit,” which the keyboardist rarely plays live. “Was that fun?” Hancock asked at its conclusion.

Oh, boy, it was.

The funky vibe continued with thumping performances of “Actual Proof” and “Come Running to Me,” with Hancock donning a vocoder to sing the latter (in the spirit of the original recording). The former, though, was the one that best captured the musical spirit of the night. It became a long jam with aggressive rhythms from bassist James Genus and drummer Justin Tyson. Loueke led the charge, with Blanchard curiously laying out until late in the tune, when he mellowly slipped in.

Hancock also applied that funky character to jazz standards like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” which included a certified James Brown groove from Genus and Tyson, and to his own theme “Cantaloupe Island,” which the band played in a fairly straightforward fashion, save for a special zing from Genus and a loose piano solo from Hancock. Hancock has played both hundreds of times.

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Even so, the performance didn’t really become a “classic” Herbie show until the leader strapped on his keytar. He is one of the best-known players of the guitar-synthesizer hybrid, and its appearance alone caused a ripple of applause. Hancock played it briefly during one song in the evening’s set, but it was during the encore, “Chameleon,” that he really turned the instrument loose. First he moved to the front of the stage for a long solo, then turned around to face off with Genus, Loueke and Blanchard. The duel with the guitarist was remarkable, with the two of them first trading, then meshing into some dissonances that were downright avant-garde.

At age 82, Hancock is relying on an established set of tricks. But they retained their ability to surprise and delight.

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