Herbie Hancock Stuns at SFJAZZ Center, 5/17/14

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Herbie Hancock at SFJAZZ Center
Herbie Hancock
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Miner Auditorium, SFJAZZ Center

Better than: Pretty much anything any other septuagenarian on the planet can do with a keytar.

From the sounds of it, anyone involved with the SFJAZZ Center's gala tribute to legendary keyboard player Herbie Hancock Friday night would have every right to roll through the weekend in a fuzzy afterglow. One of the great pianists to emerge during the '60s as both a leader and as a member of Miles Davis' second great quintet, Hancock has enjoyed over a half century as a jazz innovator and hit-maker. The free-flowing complementary craft cocktails and reportedly mind-blowing sets from Hancock with the SFJAZZ Collective, Hammond B-3 soul legend Booker T. Jones, and others during the previous night doubtless left some of the local institution's deep-pocketed donors feeling a little rough around the edges come Saturday.

But judging from the blazing performance Hancock delivered on Saturday -- backed by his longtime electric quartet plus special guest tabla maestro Zakir Hussain -- the pianist was not suffering from a Lifetime Achievement Award-sized hangover. After an especially effusive, gushing introduction by SFJAZZ founder and Artistic Director Randall Kline (who, if you haven't heard, can gush like a madman), the group gradually took the stage starting with monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

A versatile veteran who has played with the late Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, and even Megadeth, Colaiuta wasted no time tearing into the ferociously funky backbeat of the '70s-era Headhunters classic "Actual Proof." One by one, the other band members joined in. Hussain added his signature percolating tabla, while bassist Marcus Miller's nimble-fingered bottom end and West African guitarist Lionel Loueke's snarling wah-wah rhythm filled out the groove.

By the time Hancock emerged waving to the crowd's raucous round of applause, the song had reached a full boil. Swiveling fluidly back and forth between his electric Korg keyboard and an acoustic piano, Hancock somehow managed to raise the level of intensity even further, matching Loueke note for note on a string of dizzying tandem melodic runs before unleashing an absolutely torrential acoustic solo fueled by Colaiuta's maniacally propulsive beat.

Loueke's more reserved spotlight turn gave way to another virtuoso display, this time from Miller. When it comes to jazz bassists who lean heavily on the slap-and-pop technique originated by Larry Graham and elevated by Stanley Clarke, many tend to get mired in masturbatory flash. Miller's incorporation of string bends and slurred chords made for a solo that was as melodious as it was jaw-dropping. A final burst of rhythmic complexity from Hussain and Colaiuta -- who dismantled the beat entirely with a slowed-down section that had the whole audience laughing out loud -- ended the rapturous 12-minute jam. It sounded more like a fevered encore than an opening song.

Even Hancock seemed surprised at the energy as he joked through a long introduction of the band members, saying there must be something about the water in San Francisco. The group continued with a mash-up of the Hancock standard "Watermelon Man" with the intricately metered Loueke composition "Seventeen." The pianist had already transformed "Watermelon Man" from an acoustic, Latin-tinged tune to a simmering, Sly Stone-influenced groove on the original Headhunters album, but tonight the piece loped through its complex time signature like a lost Stevie Wonder funk gem before finally sliding into that familiar bass line.

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Watching the obvious delight Hancock took in creatively reassembling his classic material and matching wits musically with his high-octane collaborators, it was easy to see how he's maintained a youthful exuberance that belies his 74 years. As the version of "Watermelon Man/Seventeen" heated up, Hancock strapped on a keytar (with an attached iPad no less) and stepped to Miller, engaging the bassist in a musical duel that had both players laughing out loud at each other's progressively more outlandish excursions.

Hancock then gave the stage over to Loueke for an extended solo spotlight. Running his guitar through an arsenal of pedals, the Beninese musician alternately sounded like he was playing backwards and mimicking the tone of a hand-cranked hurdy gurdy. Loueke sang along in his native tongue with a heavy chorus effect, essentially becoming a one-man Ladysmith Black Mambazo before adding in percussive African clicks that recalled South African singer Miriam Makeba. Even after the band returned, Hancock kept Loueke center stage by wondering aloud what the guitarist and Hussain would sound like together. That kicked off mellifluous improvised duet before all the players rejoined the conversation.

A faithful reading of Hancock classic "Cantaloupe Island" gave the pianist another chance to show off his soulful side, his sweetly melodic solo punctuated by Coliauta's ringing ride cymbal work. A standing ovation brought the group back to the stage with Hancock moving back to the keytar and triggering turntable scratch samples to introduce his pioneering pop hit "Rockit." The dead-on rendition propelled by Coliauta's almost inhuman drumming and Hussain's burbling tablas perfectly replicated the original's influential hip-hop groove, but segued all too abruptly into a show-closing take on the Headhunters funk anthem "Chameleon." Even after the incendiary set left many in the crowd shaking their heads in amazement, Hancock still managed to leave us wanting more.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: Saturday night was my third time seeing Hancock play in the past dozen or so years. As good as those earlier shows were, this gig completely torched my past concert experiences. I am frightened to think of how good he will be by the time he reaches 80.

Setlist
Actual Proof
Watermelon Man/Seventeen
Lionel Loueke solo
Lionel Loueke duet with Zakir Hussain
?
Cantaloupe Island
--
Rockit
Chameleon


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