Can the stately-looking man ambling onto the stage really be only three years shy of eighty, and is it really fifty-five years since his debut album Takin’ Off (1962)? And what’s he going to play: classic Blue Note from his earliest days? Electronic space-jazz and funk from the seventies and eighties? Densely woven neo-bop? Jazz tributes as per his albums dedicated to Miles Davis, Gershwin and Joni Mitchell? Hip-hop?
The website blurb wasn’t much help but the publicity photo gave the game away, a shot of Herbie Hancock playing a Roland AX-Synth keytar (sic): a keyboard designed to be played like a guitar, worn with a neck-strap and with a ‘fretboard’ extending beyond the keys supplying effects such as vibrato and pitch bend. Yes, we were deep in the squelchy funk of Hancock’s mid-seventies Headhunters era – but with a harder edge.
Hancock mixed funky synth with densely textured piano, Terrance Martin’s alto saxophone was bright-toned and biting, James Genus’s hyperkinetic bass-playing a seismic rumble as funky as Jaco Pastorius, and Trevor Lawrence drummed as if boxing Anthony Joshua. Interspersing the pummelling funk we had eerie space-synth interludes from Hancock, and an astringent solo from Martin that had some of the off-centre atonal quality of Steve Coleman. Vocoder-processed singing from Hancock and Martin hinted at Daft Punk and Air, providing a stark reminder of how pervasive Hancock’s influence has been over the years.
An audience paying up to sixty-five quid for a ticket might have felt short-changed getting a performance lasting only eighty minutes plus a ten-minute encore (compared to, say, Pat Metheny’s generous two-and-a-half hours the previous Friday) – especially during the occasional longueurs where the riffing went on too long, and Hancock’s spoken introduction included album plugs. But all could be forgiven when the band blasted into lengthy workouts on the hits ‘Actual Proof’, ‘Watermelon Man’ and ‘Chameleon’ – the latter reprised as the encore and so irresistibly catchy that audience members were still humming it as they left the hall.