Herbie Hancock at the Barbican gig review: 82 and still thrillingly unpredictable

·2-min read
 (Roger Thomas)
(Roger Thomas)

Herbie Hancock was welcomed like a hero at the Barbican last night for a packed out concert on his way to join other musical veterans at Glastonbury where he’s playing on Sunday. His London concert opened a summer preview of the EFG London Jazz festival which takes place in November.

Now aged 82, Herbie Hancock got a piano for his 7th birthday and played a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra aged 11. He’s been performing for over 70 years, has won 14 Grammy Awards and influenced jazz, funk and hip hop and several other genres - all rather far from Mozart.

His opening Overture, lasting nearly half an hour, seemed a deliberate statement to show how unpredictable his music is. It began with what sounded like birdsong on a distant planet. Over Hancock’s other-worldly keyboard sounds, the guitar and bass added intermittent insect-like interjections while the drums kept a discreet but steady pulse. The piece then moved into exuberance with a life-affirming trumpet solo, followed by reflection and further explorations on piano. It was an arresting opening.

“If we came in and you weren’t here, we wouldn’t be playing what we just played,” Hancock said (he talked quite a lot during the show). “You, the audience, are the sixth person in the band. We want to respond to your response. That is how things are supposed to work. That is how life is supposed to work.”

Although Hancock, dressed in a cool black smock and trousers, is the star, swivelling swiftly between keyboard and grand piano, his quintet is an ensemble working as a team. Terence Blanchard, on trumpet, brought a bright burnished joy to his solos. Lionel Loueke on guitar had one of his finest moments with an upbeat solo to which he was skat singing, rhythmically breathing and adding Xhosa language vocal clicks. It was a tour de force.

James Genus on bass guitar, with a couple of extraordinary solos, mouthed the notes as he played. And probably the hardest-working member of the band was Justin Tyson on drums, always keeping a groove, but never getting stuck in them and varying the textures from beginning to end.

The repertoire was mostly pieces from the 1970s, but given a contemporary makeover. He omitted hits like Watermelon Man and Rock It, but concluded with Canteloupe Island. The downside is his love of the Vocoder, a device that makes the voice sound like an instrument, which he pioneered, but used excessively in Come Running to Me.

There was a standing ovation at the end, of course, and as an encore, Chameleon represented exactly what Herbie Hancock is in music.

Herbie Hancock is playing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury on June 26 and the Edinburgh International Festival on August 7

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