At the Kennedy Center, Herbie Hancock’s sleight of hand always surprises

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At the peak of his Friday night concert at the Kennedy Center, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock prepared the crowd for an unconventional performance. “It’s the start of a two and a half month tour that we’re starting right here. It means you are the guinea pigs,” he said. “We’re going to try some very weird and weird stuff, and drop the chips where they can.”

Well, that’s the essence of improvised music, isn’t it? But the whole thing wasn’t really that weird – not by Hancock standards, anyway. The lively and gripping performance leaned heavily on Hancock’s electronic jazz-funk experiments of the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe that wasn’t the thing for jazz purists, but again, purists buy tickets to a Hancock show knowing they’re taking a chance.

Herbie Hancock stretches and enjoys jams at the Kennedy Center

It started out weird yet, with a whirlwind of sci-fi synth effects that took minutes to yield. Then trumpeter Terence Blanchard came in, surprising us with a chorus effect that made his horn sound like two but otherwise firmly in character. He launched a medley that included elements of ‘Speak Like A Child’, ‘Butterfly’ and – in a truly unexpected moment led by guitarist Lionel Loueke – the 1983 pop hit ‘Rockit’, which the keyboardist rarely plays live . “It was fun ?” Hancock asked his conclusion.

The funky vibe continued with hard-hitting performances of “Actual Proof” and “Come Running to Me”, with Hancock donning a vocoder to sing the latter (in the spirit of the original 1977 recording). The former, however, was the one that best captured the musical spirit of the night. It became a long jam with aggressive beats from bassist James Genus and drummer Justin Tyson. Loueke led the charge, Blanchard curiously extending until late in the piece when he gently slipped away.

Hancock also applied that funky character to jazz standards like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” which included a certified James Brown groove from Genus and Tyson, and his own “Cantaloupe Island” theme (which the band played quite simple, save for a special zing from Genus and a loose piano solo from Hancock.) Hancock has played both hundreds of times.

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Even so, performance didn’t really become a “classic” Herbie show until the leader strapped on his keytar. He’s one of the most well-known players in the guitar-synthesizer hybrid, and his single appearance brought a round of applause. Hancock played it briefly during one song in the evening’s set, but it was during the encore, “Chameleon,” that he really let go of the instrument. He first took center stage for a long solo, then turned around to take on Genus, Loueke and Blanchard. The duel with the guitarist is remarkable, the two exchanging first, then chaining themselves in downright avant-garde dissonances.

At 82, Hancock relies on an established set of tricks. But they retained their ability to surprise and delight.

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