By Steve Jansen
Better than: The guitarist outside the Orpheum strumming the same chord over and over.
Herbie Hancock brought the electronic funk and (surprise, surprise) lyrical jazz to Orpheum on Friday night with a lesser-known quartet lineup that wasn’t any less worthy of sharing the stage with the funk master.
Hancock, fresh off a Japanese tour with veterans Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter, entertained with a banging lineup that included Nathan East on bass, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and Lionel Loueke, whose electric guitar was tuned to sound like one of Hancock’s atmospheric synthesizers.
While East (Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Eric Clapton, Babyface) and Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Barbara Streisand, Chaka Khan, Faith Hill, Sting) each have a hefty playing résumé, the Benin-born Loueke is a relative newbie to the starlit music scene. Hancock wasn’t shy about clowning with Loueke on-stage, who, according to Hancock, has recorded and performed with, “Terence Blanchard, Terence Blanchard, and, well, Terence Blanchard.”
This may sound asshole-ish in writing, but Hancock is a super friendly dude with a perpetual smile, a veteran who likes to keep the concert ambiance light by constantly interacting with the crowd and his band members.
Herbie Hancock (photo by Kwaku Alston)
The nearly three hour set (no intermission) began with the quartet’s interpretation of “Footprints,” a famous Shorter tune penned during the Miles Davis second great quintet era of the ’60s (the band included both Shorter and Hancock). But instead of launching into the recognizable head, Hancock took the most roundabout way possible by using arbitrary electronic samples and Moog licks that didn’t fit with the upcoming tune whatsoever.
But once Hancock shifted over to the piano and the band fell into the groove, it was hard bop heaven. The quartet would eventually depart from the tune and land into the funk-soaked “Actual Proof” from Hancock’s Thrust. This song is by far my favorite Hancock composition, mostly because of the shimmering electric bass line, originally performed by Paul Jackson.
Hancock promised a laid-back, anything-goes night of music, and he delivered. The band would go on to perform more funk favorites, including “Chameleon” from Head Hunters and a Loueke composition called “Seventeen” fused with “Watermelon Man.” But they would also bring out bombshell vocalist Sonya Kitchell -- which some caffeinated readers may recognize from the Starbucks Hear Music program -- to interpret tunes from Hancock’s latest album, River: The Joni Letters (read a brief synopsis of the album here). It was a trip to see and hear Hancock take a back seat to a jazz vocalist, but the results were great (not too cheesy or lame).
The most eclectic parts of the night occurred when the band, save for Loueke, vacated the stage. The 34-year-old performed a solo guitar/African beatbox tune that featured the clicks and clacks of an indigenous African tongue. Soon thereafter, Hancock had the stage to himself to execute the 1965 hit “Maiden Voyage” on piano, a nice ode to the pre-electronic Hancock.
When I rose from my seat for the exits, I left with a full bladder and a sense of satisfaction. Cataloging the night, the only things missing were a performance of “Rockit” (thank goodness that didn’t happen) and Chris Farley coming on stage and uttering that great line from Tommy Boy: “It’s not John Hancock, it’s Herbie Hancock. Duh.”
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Personal bias: The bass line from “Actual Proof” makes me want to take up the electric bass guitar.
Random detail: The ushers at the Orpheum Theatre took me back to Mesa Red Mountain High School, circa 1995, because they wore bola ties, just like them “shitkickers” did back in the day. (No offense to y’all. I harbor fond memories of the pickup trucks in the parking lot bumping KNIX and KMLE.)
YouTube Video for “Rockit”: