The Prickle (@ThePrickle) November 18, 2019
Herbie Hancock has spent the last 55 years of his creative output exploring new territories and pushing boundaries and now, aged 79, his appetite for a new direction remains hungrier than ever. His first note played at a sold-out Barbican triggered a cascade of eerie synth sounds that evoked a juddering space craft that rocketed the night into a funk-fusion voyage.
Hancock was equipped with a grand piano to his left and a stack of keyboards to his right and spent much of the evening pivoting between the two, pausing occasionally to poke at the settings on the latter only to change his mind at the last moment and quickly spin back to the piano instead. At the peak of a solo his arms splayed broadly to the highest and lowest octaves of the piano, hands rattling in a hammering tremolo. His face carried a playful smirk in his quest for new sounds and tricksy harmony that would both fox and delight his band and audience.
Despite the standing ovation that greeted his entrance and the army of camera phones later triggered by him hoisting the keytar shoulder-strap over his head, Hancock’s role was no more prominent than those he shared the stage with: a championing of the new generation under the watchful admiration of the veteran who refuses to rest. Such was Hancock’s joy at the talent that continues to emerge from the woodwork (“look, there’s another one!” and he playfully stamps a foot on the stage, pretending musicians are emerging faster than they can be contained) he accidentally introduces a missing saxophonist. Terrace Martin is the horn absent from previous line-ups, but this leaves welcome more room and a clearer texture in a demanding fusion of forces for the spectacle of flautist Elena Pinderhughes. She, along with drummer Justin Tyson, are “stolen, no… borrowed” from Robert Glasper and show Hancock to be a head-hunter in recruitment too: both defy the 50-year age gap of the headliner. Bassist James Genus and guitarist Lionel Loueke are also given unaccompanied solo slots to flex and display their harmonic muscles too.
It remains a fact that there is no greater sight at a jazz festival than Herbie Hancock emerging for an encore from behind the stage curtain saddled with a keytar and shuffling his way centre-stage to the squelching-funk accompaniment of Chameleon. An attempt to guide the audience into singing a three-part backing didn’t quite click, most likely because Hancock over-estimated our capacity for call and response when mesmerised by his keytar strut. Miss your train or pay your babysitter overtime to be sure you can stay to the end and witness the chameleon himself rewind the future-fusion back to 1973.
The EFG London jazz festival continues until 24 November.