Saturday, 15 November 2008

Herbie Hancock @ The Sage...

This time my blogging is a little closer to the event than last, in fact you could almost say it's on time. Just like Herbie, starting dead on 7:30 and playing one set lasting almost 3 hours. That would make the £30.00 ticket price seem reasonable if quantity was your only touchstone, but more importantly to me the quality of the music matched the epic duration. As Louise reminded me, the cost wasn't even that great when compared to some of the prices she's paid for 70's rock legends plying their trade in arenas and stadia. If anybody in jazz can legitimately charge a mint it would have to be Hancock, fresh off the back of his sublime Grammy winning Joni Mitchell project, and he certainly knows how to put on a show!

The music was all familiar stuff and spanned his career - from Cantaloupe Island to Rock It. With a new retrospective collection out in the shops it made sense to backtrack, and with so many great compositions to re-visit he could have written three or four tasty set lists. The make-up of his new sextet made the night's exercises all the more intriguing. Individually they're all known quantities, and most of them I'd seen before in other contexts. Terence Blanchard was a slick as ever and is surely one of the best trumpeters of today's contemporary mainstream. It was good to hear him play electric trumpet during the Headhunters pieces, and although it all goes back to Miles (via Eddie Henderson), the effects he used reminded me a lot of Palle Mikkelborg. Bassist James Genus (mainly playing fatback electric funk) and drummer Kendrick Scott (amazing on the 17 bar Seven Teens) were a tight knit team plucked from Blanchard's band, but the real wild cards were Swiss harmonica genius Gregoire Maret and African guitarist Lionel Loueke, whose idiosyncratic techniques brought many unexpected twists.

Impressive as Loueke was, Maret was the real star of the show. When Hancock genially introduced the band before the show Louise was skeptical about what a harmonica player could possibly bring to the table. I'd heard him before and I knew - he's one of the most creative and exciting soloists on any instrument currently playing jazz! His speed and fluency belies the difficulties of handling a pocket sized instrument, but put him on any instrument - saxophone for the sake of argument - and he'd still be a world class improviser. The way he blended with Hancock's electric keyboards on a the haunting rendition of Speak Like A Child truly made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and as we walked back to the car enduring an icy blast from the Tyne, it was Maret we were both talking about.

Last but not least we should mention Herbie. Turning 70 in less than two years, he looks as young as ever and is still a formidable showman. Forget his crowd pleasing guitar synth stunts on Rock It though, because fun as they were they were hardly typical of a night in which he dug deep at the piano stool. His solo Dolphin Dance was exquisite, and he was probably the one who ripped more shreds out of Loueke's fiendish Seven Teens than anybody. His intelligent use of keyboards were a reminder of what a pioneer he was in that field, and it being a retrospective kind of show it was good to feel the width of his output too.

This was living music, certainly not as great or as organic as Wayne Shorter's current quartet. If I was magically given the facility for time travel I'd have preferred to hear any one of theses pieces played as they were new and fresh. As that's not an option open to me or anybody else it's important to be realistic. What I heard last night was far from a let down. Last time I saw Herbie before last night's show was just after Miles' death, in a specially convened quintet with Shorter, Carter, Williams and Roney. The same comments would have applied to that gig - oozing class and satisfyingly free of stale odours, but not fresh enough for real greatness...

Fred Grand

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