Herbie Hancock

Bridgewater Hall Friday 12th November 2010

Legendary pianist and multi-keyboardist Herbie Hancock made a return visit to the Bridgewater Hall on the back of an extensive world tour that has taken in North America and Europe to highlight contemporary pop and rock numbers from the ‘Imagine Project’ album. There has been a shift away from largely instrumental pieces to a conscious attempt to appeal to a wider and, possibly, younger audience beyond the confines of his already eclectic staple audience and one more in tune with pop/rock than even the most progressive of jazz fusions. Hancock is an extremely open-minded artist and is to be commended on his continued stand not to be pigeon-holed into one or more musical category as he made clear in a famous radio interview for local radio in Manchester during the 1980s and has repeated since in print at various junctures. The transition from a predominantly acoustic repertoire in the 1960s with his albums on the Blue Note label and his extended period of stay in the classic Miles Davis band gave way to marvellous explorations of music during the Mwandishi and then the Headhunters phase that took his music in whole new directions.

Long-time fans of Hancock have marvelled at such developments and stayed faithful to him throughout. More recently during the 1990s Hancock has at times returned to acoustic format reworking 1970s pop standards in an instrumental setting on the 1996 album ‘The New Standard’ and playing with greats such as the late Michael Brecker, percussion master Don Alias and fellow Miles alumnis Dave Holland, Jack de Johnette and John Scofield. Even the project devoted to Joni Mitchell songs had a logic to it, while if ‘Gershwin’s world’ was seen as a slightly self-indulgent album, this was something that Hancock could every once in a while be forgiven for.

Hancock took to the stage with a multi-talented band, but with a repertoire that relegated their talents to largely comping along to pop tunes such as ‘Imagine’ with keyboardist Greg Phillinganes encouraging the audience to clap along while ‘Times they are a changin’ segued into a medley with Sam Cooke’s ‘A change is gonna come’.

The question nonetheless needs to be posed with respect to the present: is the current direction of a pop-jazz fusion simply a step too far and more importantly, does it actually work? As far as the individual band members are concerned, the choice of individuals is near impeccable. James Genus on the bass has cut his musical teeth with Steps Ahead and played with the likes of Dave Douglas. Cameroonian guitarist Lionel Loueke is making a reputation as a leader on Blue Note fusing contemporary African and jazz grooves while keyboardist Greg Phillinganes has simply graced some of the most important albums in musical history, notably ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson. Both the drummer and vocalist Kristina Train, hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, are perfectly respectable and, in the case of the latter, is a competent singer who, in addition, occasionally doubles up on violin. The problem lies rather with the very concept itself, combining virtuoso jazz playing with pop compositions, and here the buck lies fairly and squarely on Hancock’s all too considerable shoulders. Reprising pop standards in a jazz context is not at all a new phenomenon.

The jazz greats of the 1950s and before and beyond all interpreted the great songs of the day which are now referred to as the great American songbook. Miles Davis always made space for pop tunes new and old and in the latter stages of his career, breathed new life into the Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time after time’. Indeed pianist Brad Mehldau has regularly reworked the likes of Oasis, Radiohead and even Nick Drake, often with sublime results. The key point here is that such musicians have succeeded because they have added something new to the original while retaining an improvisational base. Sadly, with all too many of the contemporary standards showcased by Hancock and the band, it invariably sounded just like a vocal piece with added instrumentation and nothing new of substance. In short, the programme was at times jazz-lite. That is not to say that the whole evening was totally devoid of improvisational prowess. An artist of Hancock’s stature and seasoned experience is simply too skilled to avoid that pitfall and at various stages we had brief glimpses of his former self when various numbers from the Headhunters were revisited, especially towards the very end of the evening and the band members clearly enjoyed the chance to finally stretch out more.

Yet the crucial point here is that they were all too brief glimpses and as a whole the show simply did not fit together at all well, lob-sided and at times plain confusing, and simply became in the end too all-encompassing for its own good, thereby alienating many of his staunchest supporters, some of whom expressed their dissatisfaction at proceedings by walking out less than halfway through. This is not the first time that criticism of this nature has been at levelledand indeed reservations have been expressed by other journalists. In fairness to Hancock and the band, the new approach was not unpopular with certain sections of the audience and younger members of the Hancock fan club were regularly clapping along to the vocal pieces and he was given a standing ovation by many in the audience.

A final question nonetheless remains: does Hancock really want to be remembered as a sing along artist? More to the point, does he actually believe he can crossover to the pop charts with such material? Clearly, on this evidence, he feels he can. Unintentionally,however, Herbie Hancock only succeeded in dividing his audience and this left a bittersweet taste in both this reviewer’s mouth and on his journalistic pen. A frustrating evening, then, of frequent over-indulgency from one of music’s most eclectic and talented performers.

Tim Stenhouse