review: herbie hancock @ barbican centre

Teleportation: A London Jazz Festival Review

Hancock in 2006 by Jesús Mena Quintana

Hancock in 2006 by Jesús Mena Quintana


by Henry Smith

At the monstrous Barbican Center, in a modern auditorium, the announcer chimes, “from his early days with Miles Davis to his recent research with NASA, I introduce a man who has only ever pushed boundaries.” The audience is filled with well-dressed middle-aged people and young jazz aficionados alike, many ready for an evening of transcendental, sonic delight.

Herbie recently said of himself that he is constantly curious. He credits his practising Buddhism for providing him with the energy to continue discovering. He says he doesn’t play the piano every day, but he chants every day. He is currently helping NASA satellites communicate from Earth to Jupiter using pitches. The trouble is that the pitch, moving through so much space and time, tends to change. So, Herbie’s knowledge of harmony is guiding algorithms to adjust to this phenomenon of physics.

Herbie enters full of energy. He shakes his hand at the crowd and sits in his stage corner, formed by a grand piano and two electric keyboards. We would discover later in the concert that his body mic doubles as a vocoder. The genius is obvious. He has studied every facet of music he can find. His mind processes each facet at lightning speed, and his intuition, having been shaped by studying, listening, and playing with the best, flows from him with little to no resistance. He continues pushing boundaries that few people on the planet genuinely understand throughout the concert, leading many audience members astray at parts.

Joining him on stage is James Genus, the bassist from Saturday Night Live; legendary jazz musician, Trevor Lawrence, on drums; and Terrance Martin, the producer of To Pimp a Butterfly. Herbie showcases his staggering technical and creative abilities over a fast-paced, rhythmically complex dynamic between the drummer and the bassist. He is assisted by Martin and his familiar, hip-hop influenced synthesizer sometimes. Other times, Martin plays the alto saxophone for melodies, one insane solo, and various accompanying horn lines. Martin oversees the vibe; he enters the song only sporadically but alters the mood of every moment. By the way, Martin will be producing Herbie’s next album.

In the places where Herbie’s playing may have seemed self-indulgent, the spectacle of his genius triumphs over a lack of a familiar groove. And where he gives the crowd what they want, like when he played Chameleon at the end of his set, he connects with them on a level unique to him. While this could be construed as a slight, I can’t fault a guy who has spent his life playing in a genre, whose ethos is founded on novelty, for playing stuff from another planet.