It’s probably fair to say that there’s been virtually nothing really
new and different in popular music over the past few years. It’s been
nearly ten years since a band has come along which has changed the world’s
musical vocabulary in the way that Kraftwerk, the Sex Pistols, Public
Enemy, Nirvana or Massive Attack did. That’s fine: we don’t need endless
innovation all the time, and there’s been no end of excellent artists
putting a new spin on old styles: Oasis, Moby, Macy Gray.
Last night, however, I heard something genuinely new. It wasn’t a musical
revolution: Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock’s producer, has been making
similar recordings for many years. Rather, what has happened, quietly,
while no-one was really watching, is that performance technology has
finally caught up with where studio technology was a few years ago.
I’ve never heard anything like it, and that’s true on many different
levels: I’ve never seen a grand piano on stage at Irving Plaza before,
I’ve never been blown away by an Irving Plaza sound system before, and,
most importantly, I’ve never before felt that performers have been able
to combine the precision and technological sophistication of a studio
recording with the elements of a live gig which can never be captured
About five years ago, I went to see Spiritualized at the same venue,
after becoming rather addicted to their masterful CD Ladies and Gentlemen
we are Floating in Space. But the gig was dreadful, little more
than a self-indulgent cacophonous two-hour feedback loop.
Fast forward to last night, and Herbie Hancock has two huge advantages
over Spritualized: vastly superior technology, including surround sound
in a live context for what he said was the first time ever, and a mind-blowingly
good band. If Herbie Hancock got his big jazz break from Miles Davis,
then he’s doing the same favour to his own trumpeter, Wallace Roney,
who provided the soulful heart of the evening.
Hancock himself, looking 20 years younger than his 62 years, proved
himself to be just as adept on the piano as we all know he can be when
he wants, and showed as well that there’s still a huge gap between what
can be done on an electronic keyboard and what can be done on a concert
grand, even when the latter is amplified and distorted.
Elsewhere in the band, a pretty standard jazz line-up (keyboards, bass,
drums, trumpet, all outstanding) was augmented with Laswell’s favourite
turntablist, DJ Disk, and Hancock himself on Korg, piano and a little
twiddly instrument he kept in his shirt pocket.
They could certainly jam with the best, as they proved in the encore,
when Hancock brought on Me’Shell Ndegocello on bass guitar. More importantly,
though, they followed very complex Bill Laswell/Herbie Hancock lines
for more than two hours without ever lapsing into the kind of now-it’s-your-turn-now-it’s-mine
which you normally get with jazz ensembles. Even when legendary jazz
drummer Jack DeJohnette took over the percussion for one tune, he melded
seamlessly into the rest of the ensemble and didn’t show off at all.
But beyond the sheer excellence of Herbie Hancock and his band, what
really excites me is the prospect that, finally, live gigs are going
to be able to include the best aspects of studio recordings. For far
too long, concerts have often proved disappointing, with the artists
bereft in the absence of their producer’s sheen. What I learned last
night was that if the artist is good enough, a live performance, no
matter how electronic, can far surpass the best recording.