For a man in the sixth decade of an unmatchable career, American jazz keyboardist and composer Herbie Hancock is on reliably hale and hearty form as he takes the stage tonight at Edinburgh’s Playhouse: clearly relishing playing a rich and varied set, and his demeanour is breezy, and a youthful energy springs evergreen through the 82 year-old’s fingers.
The cliché ‘jazz legend’ arguably applies to Hancock more than anyone of his generation: not just in his countless collaborations with the top-calibre likes of Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder or Quincy Jones, or in his pioneering jazz-funk stylings and electronic instrumentation, but also in uniquely lofty additions to his CV in latter-career, such as a professorship of an academy (named after him!), playing for Barack Obama’s inauguration, not to mention a cabinet-full of Grammy and Academy awards to return home to when he concludes his current European tour, which included a stint on the Glastonbury stage in June.
Veneration set to one side, the fully-packed Playhouse is in for a pleasant and evening of jazzy, enquiring adventure of the kind that only eminences like Hancock can supply – full of harmonic experiment, assertive and foot-tapping grooves, relaxed, idiosyncratic phrasing and joyously expansive playing. In introducing his set he makes comparison between his jazz explorations and looking through a space-borne telescope – ‘This is 2022, right?’ – going on to play a medley that jumps musically from theme to theme. He continues his intervening chats with the crowd with an expansion on human unity – ‘How many families are there in the world? One…!’, as might be expected from his long-time adherence to Buddhism. But, aware that we’re here chiefly to hear his music, he’s soon back at his Fazoli grand, which I have to say is where the chief among his joys is to be found – in his inventive and sensitive piano-playing, and the sinuous lead-lines on his Korg Kronos keyboard over to his right, which seem almost to fall into his hands.
Occasional washes of string-synth betray an enduring ‘seventies sensibility – the decade when he really made his solo mark as a pioneer beyond mere jazz-funk. A piece by ‘my great friend Wayne Shorter – he’ll be eighty-nine next month’ is a great reminder not only of the company he keeps (said almost in a ‘must send him a card’ way), but his revered pedigree, further exemplified in chattering pieces such as Actual Proof, from his mid-seventies heyday album Thrust. The instrumentation has changed since, for this quartet at least, with less of the Rhodes piano voicing, and much of the lead-line is handled by his esoteric and versatile guitarist Lionel Loueke, who combined regular syncopated vamping with highly-treated guitar-synth melodies, often with percussive vocals and electronic harmonising: as an awe-struck Hancock points out, sometimes all at once.
Hancock of course pioneered this synergy of man and machine decades ago, with the pumping synth-bass of Chameleon, revisited tonight, and the use of vocoder on his 1978 album Sunlight, which, he recounts, allowed him to vocalise lead and harmony for the first time, admitting to having been terrible singer hitherto. Another innovation he is well-known for is the keytar – a keyboard playable on the move, which he employs from half-way through, evidently enjoying the freedom to strut the stage, with an occasional leap, visiting his almightily-capable rhythm section members (Justin Tyson on drums and James Genus on bass) face-to-face.
Maybe he didn’t have time to mention a sometime Scottish connection – that he guested on Glasgow electronic band Simple Minds’ apogee album, New Gold Dream – but mention did go to contemporary players such as Kamasi Washington, who guests on his new album project, and, probably the most highly-anticipated quote of the evening, the blissful piano chord that kick-off his hit, Cantaloupe Island, which even now can take a hall-full of rapt listeners to a special place.
With thanks to Edinburgh International Festival’s media team for their assistance.