Echoes of music’s past, present, and future resonate within every note that Herbie Hancock plays. At a sold-out concert at the Minnesota Zoo Friday night, the 77-year-old jazz master carried with him the spirit of all the musicians he’s performed with over the years, while showcasing the innovation, skill, and charm that have delighted music lovers for over five decades.
Hancock brought with him an ace four-piece band, featuring bassist James Genus (a jazz veteran and current member of the Saturday Night Live band), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (who's played with Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, and Sting), guitarist Lionel Loueke (signed to Blue Note and featured on Hancock’s Grammy winning album River: The Joni Letters), and keyboardist/saxophonist Terrace Martin (the Grammy winning producer on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly who is also producing Hancock’s new album). Hancock deftly led the group through six sprawling pieces during a nearly two-hour set on the Zoo’s intimate outdoor stage.
The performance provided a dynamic overview of Hancock’s career, with the expansive 25-minute opener “Overture” fusing various melodies and rhythms, new and old, from Herbie’s prodigious songbook. Hancock fluidly moved between his electric Korg Kronos keyboard and a grand piano multiple times during each song, bringing a futuristic feel when tracks needed it and lending a grace and elegance to the more refined moments. The effect was that of a shared dialogue with musical elders that came before us, as well as a statement to all those who will follow.
The electric jazz Hancock and his band created wasn’t always clean, and it didn’t always fit perfectly together, but the musicians were continuously pushing their sound forward and exploring the heights and depths of the material. After a smoking run through of Hancock’s 1974 classic with the Headhunters, “Actual Proof,” Herbie joked with his band, “You guys should be arrested for playing like that.” The band brought us back to the funk-filled ‘70s with the rousing number, while adding a distinctly contemporary flourish (especially Loueke’s otherworldly guitar tones) that unified the past with the present.
Hancock’s oft-sampled hit “Cantaloupe Island” sounded more like Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys than a straight jazz standard. Each musician took a sweeping solo that pushed the song ever further from its familiar melody toward a sonic stratosphere that we were all in the process of discovering together. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation after every song, and the band earned it.
The set ended with a filthy version of “Chameleon,” with Hancock leaving his piano bench behind and joining the rest of the group on keytar as he jumped along to the track’s pulsating rhythm like a man half his age. Herbie was just having so much damn fun on stage, and that jovial feeling was entirely contagious. He elevated us all, and showed the power that music has to bring people together and make us feel eternally young.
Critic’s bias: As a child of the MTV generation, the first time I ever heard of Herbie Hancock was when the futuristic video for “Rockit” hit the airwaves in 1983. My head nearly exploded when I realized that the extraterrestrial dude who made “Rockit” was also in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. Herbie, I later learned, played with damn near everybody, and his catalog is as impressive as that of any musician of the 20th century -- and beyond.
A note on the crowd: I was worried that the high ticket price would scare some away, but Herbie and his band were met by a full house of fans of all ages. The old timers brought seatbacks to sit comfortably, while the younger crowd danced in the aisles during the funkier moments.
A note on the venue: On a warm, glorious summer evening, there isn’t a better place to see a show in Minnesota than the amphitheater at the Zoo. It’s an intimate, unique venue that always seems to bring out the best of those who perform there and to draw respectful fans who are there for the music. Hancock himself certainly appreciated the gorgeous surroundings early in the set. “Thank you so much, Apple Valley. This place reminds me of Vienna. But the Romans built that. I don’t think they had anything to do with building this.”
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