Review: Herbie Hancock returns to forever and offers new inspiration

Herbie Hancock. Photo: Jacquie MacKay

In the past few weeks, septuagenarians have provided some of the best music I’ve seen anywhere.

First it was 76 year old Paul Simon wowing the Bell Centre in Montreal with a compendium of songs from his fabulous career. And on a steamy Saturday at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, Herbie Hancock raised the temperature even higher with a stellar set built upon six songs from his massive playbook. 

Hancock spans the past 60 years of jazz innovation from his start with Miles Davis in the early 1960s through the the 1970s, where he was at the forefront of the fusion movement with his iconic album Head Hunters. Over many years he’s always broken ground on new styles from jazz funk to electronica to hip hop. He has pulled it all into his orbit.

The evening began with a short introductory greeting from Hancock who included some praise for the young musicians performing in the TD Jazz Youth Summit who had been on stage when he was preparing for his sound. Then just before he got down to business, behind his keyboard and beside his shiny Fazioli grand, he warned the crowd to buckle up. They were going on a interstellar ride.

It was fitting to open such a complex, sinewy night of music-making with a piece called Overture which allowed each member of the tight quartet to shine. Hancock has been touring lately with guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus, who is a regular with The Saturday Night Live Band, and drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. Strong players in their own right, each contributed their own virtuosic imprint on the evening.

Herbie Hancock settles in behind his keyboard on the  Ottawa Jazz Festival stage

Hancock then turned back the clock further with the song Actual Proof from the 1974 jazz-funk album Thrust. While there were musical connections to the original, Hancock’s music is as contemporary as can be. He is and likely always will be intentionally inventive, always evolving his work.

Next up was a version of another well known Hancock tune called Come Running To Me off the 1978 album  Sunlight. The piece featured the stellar use of a vocoder by Hancock in a duet with his longtime guitarist Lionel Loucke.

The next piece brought out another Hancock signature. Secret Sauce is a newer piece and it featured a marvellous duel between Loucke and  Hancock on a white keytar. Man he can play that thing.

The final pieces returned to past glory with a version of the 1964 standard Cantaloupe Island and, for an encore, a rousing funky version of Chameleon which really brought the crowd at Marion Dewar Plaza to its feet.  The hit song is from Head Hunters, which helped give birth to fusion more than 40 years ago, the echoes of which ring loudly to this day.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.