Herbie Hancock has been quoted as saying, “the one thing that sticks in my mind is that jazz means freedom and openness.” Not exactly a revolutionary insight, but nonetheless.
At a recent masterclass at the Sydney Opera House, Hancock, an icon at the age of 79, asked the assembled musicians about their definition of the music. “The first thing that comes to mind is freedom,” offered a keener well-versed in the tao of Herbie. “Freedom to express,” echoed another.
Hancock told the class no, that for him the most important thing to comprehend is that jazz is about “sharing” – not freedom. The lesson? If one wants to hang with Hancock, an artist who has stayed in motion since his debut album Takin’ Off on Blue Note in 1962, one should be fluid. Hancock shifts definitions and styles. The genre-bending maestro of mid-sixties hard-bop chill was a jazz-fusion adventurist in the 1970s who audaciously showed up at the 1984 Grammy Awards with a keytar and a pair of turntables to perform his song Rockit, a crossover hit and early hip-hop hallmark.
As for sharing, the continually evolving keyboardist/composer/pianist is nothing if not generous in 2019. The current tour that brought him to Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday is a co-headlining jaunt with the American tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, one of the hip, fresh champions of modern jazz. Washington, along with fellow young lions Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Pulitzer-winning Kendrick Lamar, whose state-of-the-art hip hop is informed by jazz, are apparently collaborators on Hancock’s coming album.
In front of a crowd of porkpie-hat enthusiasts, Hawaiian-shirt ironists and adorable young beatniks, Washington set the controls for a far-flung galaxy and mostly arrived there safely. It’s the funky and cosmic luxury jazz David Bowie might be listening to these days, alone on planet Blackstar.
The opening track to The Epic, Washington’s breakthrough album from 2015, is Change of the Guard. And, indeed, Washington and others including Robert Glasper are part of a new scene and aspiring golden age. Still, he is no denier of tradition. Early in his muscular set, he brought up his flute-playing father, Rickey Washington. “Pops," he said, "taught me everything I know.”
He knows to be generous in sharing the spotlight with his bandmates and one occasional female singer. Washington’s own solos were of the street-corner soliloquy kind, with a compassionate tone to his playing. He spoke to the crowd about how diversity should be celebrated rather than merely tolerated, and offered up one number that began with five melodies and ended in something more cohesive. A metaphor, then.
After a set changeover, Hancock and his handpicked band of all-stars started with a promise to take us to a “really weird place.” It was weird enough – spacey, with plenty of funk, premium-tier noodling and vocoder otherworldliness. Guitarist Lionel Loueke in particular provided avant-garde Afro-jazz moments. The man is out there.
Vinnie Colaiuta handled drums; James Genus, the electric bass. The guy on the far right was Terrance Martin, the producer on Lamar’s masterful To Pimp a Butterfly album. He manned the keyboards and starred on alto sax.
The set ended with Hancock playing the looping, recognizable piano riff to his 1964 hit Cantaloupe Island. Any “song of summer” talk should fall by the wayside when Hancock can walk on stage on an early August night with an elite band and drop Cantaloupe Island on a Merlot-softened audience.
At one point, Hancock praised his fellow musicians. “I’m terrified playing with these guys,” he said, grinning wide. “You don’t want to be up here right now.”
One person who did want to be up there was Washington, who joined in on a night-ending encore jam of Hancock’s Chameleon. Hancock on electric keytar, Washington on sax – a conversation of sorts. As Hancock did when he was young (playing with Donald Byrd and Miles Davis), Washington and his generation stand on the shoulders of giants. Seeing it happen live, one has to believe the view up there is first rate.
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