Rockit man

Herbie Hancock and crew serve up way-out night of improvisation in Davis

GENIUS AT WORK Herbie Hancock at the Mondavi Center

GENIUS AT WORK Herbie Hancock at the Mondavi Center

Photo By Larry Dalton

Directions in Music: A Celebration of Miles Davis and John Coltrane with Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove Mondavi Center for the Arts, Davis, Sat., Feb. 5

“Don’t be afraid to try things.”
Herbie Hancock

From the get-go, legendary jazz pianist and musical chameleon Herbie Hancock took over the stage for his long-sold-out show in the 1,800-seat Jackson Hall at the state-of-the-art Mondavi Center.

Together with the super-stellar duo of Michael Brecker on tenor sax and Roy Hargrove on trumpet, with whom Hancock toured (and recorded Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall) in 2001, and Scott Colley on upright bass (who’s played with the Jim Hall Trio, John Scofield, Toots Thielemans, Ravi Coltrane and his own avant-jazz quartet Lan Xang) and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums (Stan Getz, Pharaoh Sanders, Wayne Shorter, etc.), Hancock commanded our attention all night long by producing what amounted to an ever-changing landscape of highly interesting and mesmerizing musical sounds and ideas in the spirit of jazz pioneers/adventurers Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

It was jazz, but it wasn’t your ordinary collection of standards done in anything that could be called a predictable way. A handful of people walked out about halfway through the show—maybe it was too “out there” for them—but the other 1,795 or so of us remained, continuing to provide Hancock and crew with thunderous applause.

Dressed in black and seated before his grand piano, Hancock began by laying hands upon a small keyboard stacked on top of the piano, producing eerie chords that he eased down in pitch with a pitch controller before moving down to the piano, from which he elicited some very pretty chords in juxtaposition to the lingering eeriness. Carrington then snuck in, punctuating the hypnotizing aura of sound developing around Hancock with subtle drum hits.

Hancock: Wild metallic ocean sounds from the keyboard … Carrington: Brush swishes across the cymbals like strokes from a painter. Colley eases in on bass. Hargrove, who along with Brecker was absent from the stage at the very beginning, appears at the back of the stage and slowly, even somewhat mysteriously (he’s another man in black) works his way toward the front as the lighting dims to a yellowish glow and he delivers some trumpet notes. Hancock responds with a huge low chord, then the four on stage, without Brecker, trade contributions of staccato notes reminiscent of a John Cage symphony. The ensemble’s playing morphs into a crazy funk groove, and Hargrove proceeds to tear it up on the trumpet and then walks off stage to giant applause.

This was just the beginning of a 40-minute version of Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” the melody recognizable only fleetingly both early and very late in the song. The bulk of that first piece—and of the entire evening’s performance—was pure, mind-blowing creativity-in-action. My piano-playing friend Shigemi and I were able to pick out the barest snippets of a few familiar songs—Coltrane’s “Naima” among them—but most of what we heard had likely never been heard by anyone before, as these folks were creating an improvisational jazz symphony on the spot.

Brecker was phenomenal, his playing at times darkly moody, at times wild, quirky and squawky. His soliloquy piece on an EWI (electronic wind instrument), backed by a recording of multi-cultural musical sounds and his own on-stage-recorded loops, was utterly fascinating.

Colley and Carrington together were beyond top-notch as a tight, ultra-capable rhythm section and contributors of fiercely inventive musical ideas and solos.

This show gets 1,795 thumbs up!