Herbie Hancock – the pioneering post-bop pianist who brought jazz to its technical apogee alongside Miles Davis, composer of many of the genre’s best-known standards, crossover star of funk, fusion and electronica, professor of poetry, ambassador for UNESCO, cultural treasure and general household name – arrived at the Abu Dhabi Festival with all the pop-influenced ceremony of the icon he’s become, each member of the band taking to the stage one-by-one, conjuring a thick funk groove before Hancock had even appeared.
Launching into a stunning version of ‘Actual Proof’, the pianist darting between electric and acoustic pianos with a childlike enthusiasm and intense focus, Herbie and his band summoned the tight funk and technical prowess present on the 1974 Thrust original. The groove got deeper still with stalwart ‘Watermelon Man’, the original 1962 bop hit here fed through a 1972 recasting from funk-crossover forbearer Headhunters, still the world’s second best-selling jazz LP to date.
Next it was time for the evening’s special guest. Emirati pop singer Hamdan Al-Abri, described by Hancock as a ‘really talented boy’, joined the band for a once-in-a-lifetime gig opposite a genuine musical legend. If he looked nervous taking to the stage, the minute he opened his mouth he owned it, giving a straight and soulful reading of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ – a tune sung by James Morrison on Hancock’s last LP The Imagine Project (2010).
More oblique was ‘Come Running to Me’, from 1978’s Sunlight, a smouldering disco-funk groove with Herbie singing through a vocoder, surprisingly undated and a timely reminder of just how much Daft Punk have lifted outright from the past. The set came to an astounding climax – a simmering tornado of syncopated rhythms and cascading notes – with extended closer ‘Cantaloupe Island’, exactly 50 years since its release on Blue Note classic Empyrean Isles. Like the rest of Hancock’s best-known themes, tonight the tune’s bare chord cycle acted as little more than a launching pad for stratospheric group improvisations of the highest scale – a bona fide freakshow of music talent.
The sheer intuitiveness of this band is staggering. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta – described by Hancock as ‘the king of drums’, a veteran of Frank Zappa, Sting and Joni Mitchell – appeared on another plane of consciousness with his endless outpouring of polyrhythmic complexities, locked into (and around) the groove with bassist James Genus, who danced between huge booming notes with the agility of a giant hopping between islands. Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke’s incredible dexterity, unheard technical approach and knowledge of African folk forms and jazz harmony alike deserve a review all of their own, but bereft of words we’ll leave it to Hancock to introduce him: ‘Nobody plays guitar like him... nobody.’ By the end of the set, few would disagree.
Striding back onstage strapped to his keytar for an encore, Hancock ticked off the hits with a cursory run through the head of 1983 jazz-hip-hop smash ‘Rockit’ (the best-selling ‘jazz’ single ever, if that’s not a tautology), before grooving into Headhunters’ centrepiece ‘Chameleon’, here treated as a little more than a framework for more outrageously silly but effortlessly executed keytar pyrotechnics.
With a figure of Hancock’s stature there’s a tendency to forgive one’s missteps and wear rose-tinted spectacles when viewing their less successful artistic endeavours. Yet it’s worth remembering that an imitable technical knowledge doesn’t make one immune to missteps of taste.
All that keytar strutting might have served the purists a slightly watery soup, but let’s remember Hancock is that aforementioned cultural icon who has both redefined jazz and topped charts, and been embraced as a household name by many who might never step near a jazz club. Cannily, Hancock offer a welcome balance, pleasing the demands of his reputation to both the caustic and the casual – and the demands of his own restless spirit as an artist and an explorer who still clearly gets a great naive joy from gadgets, gear and music.
Whether you prefer the pop covers of Possibilities or the post-bop of VSOP, Hancock is ploughing forward in a way that pays great tribute to his past, but in its evolutions and transformations has shaken off the dusty air of decades-old tribute. Matters of taste – keytar or no keytar? – are of little consequence in face of the sheer musical talent and invention this man brings to the party. Hancock, and each of the members of his band, are among the best musicians you are likely to see anywhere on the planet, and certainly in the UAE, and both this gig and the continued artistic existence of this man should be celebrated as a triumph.