I just watched one of the greatest concerts of my life. I went to the Herbie Hancock show at Zellebach Auditorium at UC Berkeley on Wednesday night (9-21-11), expecting little more than a polite jazz quartet, playing some of Herbie Hancock’s 60’s standards and some of his modal jazz work with Miles Davis. Of course I have been a devout follower of Herbie Hancock since his days with the Headhunters band, a ferocious funk-jazz outfit that produced massively mind-bending Afro-futurist electronic funk back in the 70s, decades ahead of its time. I was thrilled in the 1980s when Herbie Hancock discovered hip hop beats, and jumped headfirst into electro-funk production, and won his first Grammy Award in 1984 with “Rockit!” I saw him perform at the Greek Theater at Cal in 1986 with the Rockit band (with Steel Pulse opening up), and Herbie’s band going through some incredible sonic fusions of funk, hip hop, rock, afrobeat and bop jazz. His music then was high tech and mindblowing, but after each thunderous song, he would politely say “thank you, this next song is….” His stage demeanor didn’t match the epic sonic and cultural onslaught that his music meant to me in 1986, and I felt then that maybe he was a quiet jazzman at heart, that just dabbled around in musical exploration.
Over the years, Herbie Hancock has ‘dabbled’ in some incredible collaborations, and made some extremely popular music, winning “Album of the Year” Grammy award in 2008 for River: The Joni Letters, beating out such acts as Amy Winehouse and Kanye West. He had come on tour in the past with the Headhunters, specifically playing his funky future-beats, he tours completely solo, and he had come to town with just a straight ahead jazz combo.
So I was left to wonder, which Herbie Hancock would show up at Zellerbach that night? It was simply billed as “jazz” with Herbie Hancock on piano. I had not heard of any of his backing musicians, a drummer, bassist and guitarist.
The night began with the band walking out one by one, hitting a dirty free jazz riff that sounded like “Actual Proof,” one of Herbie’s legendary Headhunters era fusion workouts. That is exactly what they did. Herbie kept burning, and bassist James Genus would burn with him. After one song, Herbie came out front from his keyboard perch – that had more than a grand piano, it had a small keyboard (I thought I saw the iconic MOOG label on it) as well as a computer screen and some other goodies.
Herbie began joking with the audience, and took his time to introduce each member of his band. Here was an artist not only a master of his craft, but a master of the stage and a master of the audience as well. I had seen Miles Davis in the same venue in the 1980s, and while the show was phenomenal, Miles never said a word the entire night.
Herbie was having a ball letting us know that his personality was as fun as his music was. He went into a long discussion of his classic “Watermelon Man” and how there are two versions of it, and his guitar player Lionel Loueke (a native of Benin, a small country bordering Nigeria) wrote an original composition (in 17/4 time he said) and that they were going to mix that into the song as well.
That is precisely what they did. The song had a brilliant funk feel, a strong blues tone, some wild African influences, and then the ridiculous time changes Herbie warned us about. As the jam heated up, Herbie reached around and put on his strap on mobile keyboard, and walked in front of the stage to let the synthesizer rip – in a thunderous give and take with the bass, as they cranked out what seemed like a 20 minute jazz-funk party jam.
This was no acoustic jazz combo, this was a funk masterpiece performed at full throttle by a Master Of His Craft with some untouchable protégés in the mix with him.
That set a tone that I did not think could be matched or exceeded, but Herbie is NO JOKE. He introduced his guitarist again, and left the stage while Lionel Lueke did an indescribably brilliant piece of African (click) vocalizing, percussive and melodic guitar work at the same time, and just blew all our minds all by himself.
When the band came back, they hit into a punishing funk jazz groove that I did not recognize, and could barely handle. The riffing was so hard, the bass thump was so relentless, the soloing was so mindblowing, it was clear that Herbie was in territory NOBODY ALIVE can match. The music had an intensity only matched – I said only matched -- by George Clinton’s band during their 7 day stay in the Bay in July.
That is how strong the jam factor was. And I was convinced that Bootsy Collins’ visit to the Fillmore in June was the best concert of the year, until George Clinton did his week of noise at Yoshi’s. But here comes Herbie Hancock with a list of funk credentials that can stand up to any funk-master, and Herbie comes from the jazz side of things to RIP THE SH*T OUF THE JAM.
I had passes to this show because I was invited to be on a panel with two jazz experts who loved and still live with Herbie from his modal jazz mode. On the panel earlier that day I claimed that I felt that “all of herbie’s musical explorations were sincere to him” but conceded that a night of polite dinner jazz might be in store. Oops.
I did say Herbie connects all of the genres of improvisational music, from hard bop to hip hop and beyond, but I did not believe that he would do this all in one night.
After the thunder jam, Herbie and the drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bass player Genus delivered some hot and heavy free jazz that just burned the stage up. This is where the drummer starts channeling Tony Williams. It was hard to imagine what was happening – as it was really happening – as the collective improvisation and relentless rhythm fire would not stop, and the three sustained a pocket that is rare for any jazz giant – then or now. I have seen artists like Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman, who enjoy the collective improvisation of free jazz and cut loose now and then, but they wouldn’t heat it up. To cook a high intensity freeform jam and keep it there like Herbie did, that is out there with Michael Hampton’s Maggot Brain for sustained intensity. There I said it.
After that, I was stretched out. Herbie had me in the palm of his hand. The band left, and Herbie proceeded to play an improvised love song on the grand piano. It sounded like he was making the entire thing up as he went, ‘freestyling’ a thing of beauty. That’s exactly what it was, beauty, put to music, plain and simple. Herbie doesn’t play ‘wrong’ notes. He can jam the most wicked ‘out’ jazz, or cuddle up with a warm melody, but everything he plays has that essential love element in it. Herbie just doesn’t go sour.
The band came back and breathed fire into a version of “Cantaloupe Island” that was anything but the gentle Caribbean feeling romp that it is on the record. Before I knew it he had saluted the audience and was heading offstage. We brought them all back of course, and the band got started on “Chameleon.” Herbie walked out last, with his strap on “keytar” and proceeded to get down and funky with that thing. After grooving on some synthesizer trickery, he reset the thing to play samples and voice bytes, like James Brown chants, and proceeded to give us a hip hop mixtape live with his jazz band. And Herbie didn’t just play funky, he was funky, letting it all out and getting a little wiggle (waggle) going as he grooved on.
No other artist alive is capable of reaching this much of a range of great sounds and styles of music and make it smoke, let alone own it as part of his own catalog. But Herbie can. And for what it’s worth, the entire show was basically from the Funk side of things. Yes it was a (deceptively) billed as a jazz concert, but Herbie came with The Funk, brought The Funk, and delivered The Funk, peeriod.
Herbie showed his jazz audience just how fundamentally The Funk is the heir to the throne of improvisational music; and he showed his hip hop/ electrofunk audience precisely where all of those (funky) rhythmic sensibilities come from. He gave a music lesson across 60 years of black traditions, and kept it On The One. This is THE Herbie Hancock to see, no matter what style of Herbie you may have come to know him from. And especially if you see on the bill the players James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, drop what you are doing and get a ticket to that show.