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Published: 2006/07/03
by Dan Alford

Herbie Hancock and Friends, Carnegie Hall, New York- 6/23

A Concert in Four Acts

Act One: Trio

Bill Cosby shuffles onto the stage, getting some big cheers, and raises the microphone, saying only, “Jack DeJohnette.” And the man strides out, the crowd rising to its feet. “Ron Carter.” Lanky, incredibly tall in a tan suit, the bass master takes his place center stage. The cheers are wild before the Coz can speak, “Herbie Hancock.” Laughing and waving, Hancock greets his comrades and settles into the piano. The trio swaggers and strolls into a stunning three song set that could have easily closed the show. Ron Carter is low and heavy, sounding like a wave of boulders from a half mile away; DeJohnette, always a favorite, is snapping and sparkling, so light and lively, as versatile with toms, rims and cymbals as Hancock is across eighty-eight keys. It’s everything one might assume when three masters with such history join together- they are like three sheets of wet rice paper slowly overlapping, light bleeding through and blending them into one, then peeling apart just as skillfully. For the final number, “One Finger Snap”, saxophonist Michael Brecker joins, playing a merciless torrent of notes that pushes the whole mini set into different territory. Now Herbie is sparring with Carter and DeJohnette in turn, wild and frenetic, before dropping out for a long drum n bass (of a different color) segment. Both are listening and responding, dropping out and shouting over It’s a conversation of the greatest import played with the greatest joy- a continuous, exuberant shout, “Ha!”

Act Two: Quintet

This is Hancock’s touring band for the summer: Lionel Loueke on guitar, Lil Hayden on violin, Richie Barshay on drums. On bass, the great Matt Garrison, a young virtuoso who seems to pop up in a whole range of settings, from Scofield (my favorite Scofield band) to JMP to Schleigho (or maybe the memory is a bit hazy there). The unit charges into crazy playing, little in the way of synchronized movement, but swelling nonetheless, cresting in huge bulges of sound. The music wanders, but not expansively. It’s more linear, moving through distinct, graphic locales. The quintet essentially uses the same approach for every song, giving them more of a “sound” than might be expected. Loueke is a standout, playing a mean afrobeat guitar, percussive and riddled with vocals and pedals, but always returning to gorgeous, super-clean playing. The only weak moment of the night came with Haydn’s “Unfolding Grace,” a lavish orchestral piece that had strong, frantic moments, but was dragged down by painfully cheesy lyrics. The set closed with “Chameleon,” Hancock with a synthboard strapped over his shoulders like some 80’s techno guru. Marcus Miller joined on big slapping lead bass, Garrison remaining to pin it all down. After the initial bass barrage, a fantastic, rolling groove settled in with Herbie riding the piano through the core.

Act Three: Duet

Two pianos facing each other in a dead silent concert hall. A series of quick nods back and forth with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then a strange, sensuous groping towards, well, something ineffable. It’s a totality- strong fingers massaging melodies or potent, visceral rhythms; ambient soundscapes and expectantly playful dancing with trills and short chord structures from Herbie. Words can’t do it justice as it’s almost too much- too many notes in too many combinations in too quick succession to make sense. The mini set closes with a crackling, vibrant “Footprints”- shocking in the sharp, brisk character and deeply threaded coda, and in the fact that Wayne Shorter was standing just behind the door.

Act Four: Quartet

This band may be the greatest super group on the planet: Shorter, Hancock, Holland and Blade. They toured extensively in 2004, FM sources of the European dates circulating widely. Listening to any one show is to expose your ears to precision and play on a majestic scale; listening to show after show can actually change the way you hear music. The quartet is a collection of four frayed, very live wires, each coursing with current along its own path and snapping with bright blue sparks at intervals, redirecting the flow. Well, except for Brian Blade, who is constantly erupting and leaping off his stool, stabbing and parrying with an array of sticks, mallets, brushes or just his hands- you can take your Rodney Holmes, your Stanton Moore, your Jon Fishman (all of whom well deserve the accolades they receive); I want only Brian Blade.

At a moment, Shorter is in charge, screaming and slashing, suddenly soothing. At a moment, Holland is in control with sinuous, bent lines and fast flourishes. At a moment, Hancock is racing, fleet fingered to the right and dropping down muffled and rumbly to the left. The band is anything but egoless jamming. It is instead a collection of strength in personality and respect, old gods at play. They close with “Prometheus Unbound”, a towering titan of a song played strong and proud. Holland and Blade lock eyes and smile broadly as Shorter blows through the opening passage and gives way to a windswept spiral of Hancock’s piano. Blade is racing with him at full speed, crashing and jabbing, giving different voice to the same idea. The finale is long and ornate, Shorter trilling like Herbie and Hancock spearing and shrieking like Wayne.

When you are a patron of live music, it becomes a diet, a taste familiar and comforting as much as enticing and exciting, and any given special night seems subjective in the reality of itself- those musicians play every night; that girl is at her first show; that guy had terrible day; this fits my mood perfectly. But there was a real vibe in Carnegie Hall that night, and everyone knew it. Knew it was a true celebration, a night to be savored. It was the kind of night, the kind that maybe I didn’t know exists, that made me wish I could just hang on to it, that it wouldn’t be crowded by another gig, an upcoming tour.

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