Hancock wows Lowell with new band and new tunes

A review of Herbie Hancock at the Lowell Summer Music Series on August 7, 2010

, Contributing Writer

Herbie Hancock is undoubtedly one of the most recognized names in jazz today. Nearly forty years after the release of his first album he continues to entertain and inspire through his creative innovation. Hancock thrives on collaboration, always mixing, blending and drawing influences from his environment and fellow artists. Touring in support of his new release, The Imagination Project, Hancock and his new band hit Boarding House Park on Saturday night as part of the Lowell Summer Music Series.

What Hancock and his new group of musicians achieved together was nothing short of magical. Their rhythmic jams were comfortable out under the stars in Lowell, and the crowd was a sea of colorful quilted blankets and folded beach chairs. The casual environment lent a hand to the mood of the night, and the musicians could feel the energy in the air, too. Comfortably taking the stage, they opened with “Actual Proof”, a tune that Hancock has been playing since he released it in 1978. Having an additional synth keyboard player, Hancock was free to switch between his grand piano and his synth, which he took full advantage of in the first jam.

Hancock introduced two of his new vocalists to the stage for John Lennon’s “Imagine”, the first of a handful of new songs off The Imagination Project. The song began with a freely haunting solo on the grand piano, leading into the soulful entrance of Kristina Train’s vocals. A hybrid between gospel, soul and a hint of country, her stylistic inflections were deliberate. In every subtly in her tone, Train was relatable and told a story. She was joined by Greg Phillinganes who broke into song in his high range which was remarkably reminiscent of a young Stevie Wonder. In harmony the two were complimented one another, moving perfectly in sync and balance.

If there is one thing that you can always count on Hancock doing in his shows, it is to morph the groove, and that’s what came next. The solemn mood began to become upbeat, with the hi-hat rising up and the bass line becoming busier. With joyous backup vocals, they transitioned into a rock beat with Hancock taking the lead on his synth with a bass tone. The song became slinky and sassy, with the band coming together to nail unpredictable syncopated hits effortlessly. Building intensity, the groove climaxed and the theme of “Watermelon Man”, one of Hancock’s most well known charts, emerged.

Their musicianship was impeccable, switching between grooves of “Watermelon Man” and “17s” seamlessly with each voice in the band keenly focused on their interplay to the big picture. Never have I heard a splicing of slow funk and 6/8 rock, but this band made it hip. Communicating with their melodies, each entrance introduced a with a new inflection, a nuance that gave instruction to where the song would go next.

Mid-jam, Hancock suddenly dashed to the back of the stage to emerge with a keytar and the crowd erupted. He took to the front of the stage and played a solo that only he could pull off with such ease. Staring low in range, he explored new modes and found figures he liked. Settling on figures he liked, Hancock harped on them, repeating each small segment as he climbed the scale. As his melodies took flight, they entered their own realm and became independently playing off of the groove in polymeter, a signature element to many of Herbie’s extended solos.

The next phase of the concert took us on a journey with an epic ten minute introduction on the grand piano. It was stylistically fascinating, a fusion reminiscent of Bill Evans and Claude Debussy, both impressionistic and modern with uplifting, flowing melodies and yearning harmonies to support them.

Throughout his classically sounding escape, he made reference “Maiden Voyage”, “Dolphin Dance”, “‘Round Midnight”, “Speak Like A Child”, and “Canteloupe Island”, which became the melody that the band moved through next, exploring various styles of rock, funk and jazz.

The second half of the concert had a personal focus. They opened the set with “Tarmatant”, a gently lilting Irish folk song in which Train sang in Gaelic and played the violin, into Bob Marley’s “Exodus” with Lionel Loueke playing guitar and singing in his native language from Northern Mali. They continued through the set with tributes to Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke. Captivating the audience, many were singing and swaying as the sky grew dark and the stars emerged over the Boarding House Park Stage.

“Space Captain” changed the pace and impressed the crowd. Rightfully so. Train began to sing in a gospel style and was joined by a choir of voices supporting her. One by one, all of the performers on stage began to sing in an interlude, including Hancock. The lyrics “together, together, together” were heard and the soul jam began. Hancock dashed back to his bench and began to trade solos with the bass. Escalating more and more, Train began to improvise as well, and the show ended on a high with the audience roaring.

Of course, they didn’t let them go far, and the band reemerged to play “Chameleon” as Hancock yet again grabbed the keytar and the spotlight. As the crowd danced into the night, the jam continued, and of course climaxed into a rage of energy as Hancock ripped away, smiling, laughing and creating fascinating music.

It was a truly awesome ending to an evening of innovative musical excellence. The legend, Herbie Hancock has definitely still got it.

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