Fresh Takes On Old Standbys: Herbie Hancock In Boston – Review, Photos & Videos
Words & Images by: Andrew Bruss
Herbie Hancock :: 10.5.17 :: Orpheum Theatre :: Boston, MA
Herbie Hancock‘s performance at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre meditated on longtime fan favorites that he’s been playing every night in the same order. Yet, where the set lacked a unique touch, it compensated with an exciting new band that teased at a fascinating project on the horizon.
The 77-year-old jazz great has raced ahead of his peers to innovate in genres ranging from hip-hop and electronica to classical adaptations and modern pop and while his iconoclastic bent is a major part of his legacy, taking people outside their comfort zones has often earned him the ire of listeners and fans alike. In 2007, two years after recording Possibilities with pop acts including John Mayer, Sting and Christina Aguilera, Hancock told JamBase “Criticism is an indication that [he’s] doing something right” and if he isn’t being challenged, he’s too comfortable.
His last studio album was 2010’s The Imagine Project and ever since, while he’s done some performing with fellow greats like Chick Corea and Carlos Santana, Hancock has been working pretty closely within his comfort zone. Anyone buying a ticket to a concert by Herbie Hancock and a band of his choosing knows they’re going to see a 90-minute set primarily made up of Head Hunters-era material, and an encore of “Chameleon” featuring the man himself hamming it up center stage with his Roland AX keytar in hand.
In light of the fact that the past seven years have felt like Hancock has been running through the motions, the inclusion of Terrace Martin in his new band was a breath of fresh air that carries with it a promise of innovation on the horizon. During the set Martin played sax and Vocoder but Hancock himself admitted it was his work as a producer that first got his attention. Martin has produced records for both Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder, and his work with Kendrick Lamar has brought his name out of the studio shadows. He helped write and record a number of tracks for Kung-Fu Kenny and produced “The Blacker The Berry,” which belongs in the running for Best Track Of The 21st Century. Hancock announced to his audience that he is working on an album with Martin and with respect to the actual concert, that welcomed bit of news might have been the highlight of the night.
The set started with an “Overture” that incorporated elements of different compositions Hancock performed throughout the night, including the aforementioned “Chameleon” closer. Before moving on to “Actual Proof” off 1974’s Thrust, Hancock took a brief moment to appear from beyond his pianos to greet his audience and introduce his band, who in addition to Martin, includes Saturday Night Live bassist James Genus, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who in addition to his work as Hancock’s longtime drummer, has kept the beat for Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Sting, Joni Mitchell, Megadeth and Barbra Streisand. “Cantaloupe Island” was the oldest piece performed and gave each member of the quartet a chance to show off their chops and shine on an extended solo. While Genus and Colaiuta both had plenty of time to shine throughout the night, it was Martin who had the biggest spotlight granted to him by Hancock and it wasn’t even close. It’s too soon to start calling Martin Hancock’s protégée but in this case, stage chemistry speaks for itself.
Hancock’s setup is both elegant and modest. Unlike his contemporaries, he doesn’t surround himself with walls of synths and keyboards and modulation units. With the exception of the keytar he plays to close the show, Hancock performs exclusively on a grand piano or a keyboard. His grand piano is outfitted with mirrors above the keys and under the hood that allow you to see what’s being played, but it’s his Korg Kronos, a nine-engine/multiple oscillator workstation, that does all the heavy lifting.
“Cantaloupe Island” featured piano work that was relatively traditional yet, throughout the night, Hancock’s audience hung onto every note of his instrumental voice that’s best described as “controlled chaos.” To the uninitiated the spastic strike of augmented notes can sound a little off-putting, but it’s through the mastery of this imperfection that his voice as a player is defined and his greatness makes itself known.
Although the setlist felt a bit stale, the set itself was executed with the type of technical precision fans of Hancock’s have come to expect from him. The show was everything you’d want in a Herbie Hancock concert if you’d never seen him before and for longtime fans that follow his every move, the inclusion of Terrace Martin and news of their studio collaboration is easily the most excitement you’ll have gotten from him in close to a decade. Herbie Hancock may have chosen to color inside the lines, but he still gave his Boston crowd a lot to look forward to.