HERBIE HANCOCK | London, Barbican

It’s always interesting to be in the presence of a legend. From his calm, unhurried entrance (“shh!” he admonished the applauding audience) to the briskly-started opening, Herbie Hancock was modest and self-effacing. Perhaps this is because the music comes before the man, which it did, in a blinder of an opening that made me think perhaps the audience had accidentally boarded a space ship. The band played an immaculately weird, wild, sci-fi-esque piece whose gathering weight and speed were rolled back and forth between the players. The sounds were (almost literally, as Terrace Martin took a break from clean-cut sax to make unearthly crooning screeches through his synthesizer) from a different galaxy.

But from the second number, something, somehow, came unstuck. Not entirely, by any means – Herbie had a generous introduction for each band member, genuinely admiring each as well as teasing them (“He’s got these swishy things”, he said of drummer Trevor Lawrence, “– what’s that one? Oh! Hit it!”), and, naturally, they all worshipped him. But over the next two hours, I occasionally lost my way in the brilliantly unique mêlée. Herbie Hancock is, unquestionably, a legend, and in each of his piano solos I thought the keys might burst into flames as he dizzyingly played fast, fast, faster. But there wasn’t quite enough of this tour de force though; his generosity to the band extends to the air time they get. While their talent justifies this, I sometimes felt the show’s improvisation obscured the reason the originals are so important. Terrace is a force behind his keyboards, and, occasionally, he seemed to take on the role of frontman more than Herbie himself. Judging from the enthusiastic audience response to ‘Canteloupe Island’, I wasn’t the only person there to be relieved at a more easily graspable melody, even if it wended its way through the band and in the process was transformed into something altogether new – thrilling if slightly isolating.

Before the encore, the audience managed to make their storm of clapping sound like begging – which it was: at nearly eighty, Herbie’s a magnetic performer; watching him play was unalloyed pleasure, and his inventions are still the work of a genius. But as I stood in a row of people all confusedly clapping at their own tempo, among an audience who couldn’t begin to sing the notes back to the wily old maestro onstage, I hoped he wouldn’t give up entirely on everything that has made him so great, outstripping other musicians like a comet overtaking mere stars.

The 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival continues until Sunday 19 November.

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