Herbie Hancock

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

on DAT.

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.

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