Jazz's Chameleon | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Jazz's Chameleon

For Herbie Hancock's performance, one thing is predictable: It'll be unpredictable.


Since the famous pianist Herbie Hancock rarely visits our li'l Triangle burg, it's a bona fide lock that his upcoming Nov. 15 show in Durham will be special. The entourage of the eternally youthful 62-year-old king of the keyboard will include a royal band of thirtysomething improvisers, featuring whirlwind drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, big-toned saxophonist Gary Thomas and Scott Colley, considered by some as the finest young bassist in jazz. Yet exactly what their music will sound like is shrouded in mystery.

On Friday night at 8 at the Carolina Theatre, this regal combo of flexible all-stars might conjure up a bit of old-fashioned bebop--and it might not. No doubt things could get madly syncopated--with a slippery-snake bass-line propelling a growling tenor. Then again, that might never happen. Will the pianist the revisit the still-vital repertoire of his mentor, the late trumpeter Miles Davis, or take a page from the popular songbook of George Gershwin, one of his favorite composers? Who the hell knows: Maybe not even Hancock--until the precise moment that the house lights dim and the band kicks.

If jazz is indeed the sound of surprise, as critic Whitney Balliett once astutely noted, then Sir Herb is perhaps the consummate jazz musician, even when he's playing sugary pop or sleek R&B or any of the myriad styles that pour out of his magic fingers. The cat that orchestrated "Chameleon," one of the most infectious straight-up funk tunes ever, is, in fact, a lizard himself.

Hancock's utter unpredictability is what makes his brand new four-CD retrospective such a joy. Spanning 16 years (1973-'88), The Herbie Hancock Box (Columbia/Legacy) is alternately acoustic and caustic, electric and eclectic. The sheer breadth of the Box messes up the mind, so to minimize potentially jarring segues from cut-to-cut, producers Bob Belden and David Rubinson have wisely programmed the menu thematically. The lucky listener can sit back and leisurely rewind through Hancock's history, discovering a treasure-chest of deep diversity.

Here's the inventory: piano solos and duos (with pal Chick Corea), scalding hard-bop topped with horns aplenty, a pair of one-on-ones with sax-y soulmate Wayne Shorter, award-winning film soundtracks, bleeping electronic space music with interstellar synths and, last but not least, the formidable dance tracks of the Headhunters, jazz-rock's contribution to the Sly-to-P-Funk continuum. Nearly every cut reveals a distinct facet of Hancock's inspired schizophrenia. With the exception of several unfortunate dips into commercial soul-style vocal pap (like a po' man's Earth, Wind & Fire), the Box swings start to finish.

Ironically, some of the collection's most accessible moments occur when Hancock swims against the tide of contemporary fashion. Flashback to VSOP, a late-'70s reunion of Miles' legendary quintet with trumpet fireball Freddie Hubbard subbing for Davis. VSOP, an acoustic band, toured and recorded during the heyday of electric jazz-rock--and was applauded politely at the time as one of Hancock's interesting side-projects. A quarter-century down the pike, however, VSOP's watch-me-now strut re-emerges within the context of this retrospective--and it has somehow morphed into a sound larger-than-life.

A previously unreleased version of Hubbard's muscular "Red Clay" and several other takes rescued from Japanese-only LPs gallop with the unrestrained power of wild horses. The kinetic rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams pushes the careening solos of Hubbard and Wayne Shorter into hyperspace and beyond. Meanwhile, Hancock, the group's harmonic conscience, stays cool, anchoring the surge with common-sense accompaniment.

Hancock is a rare star who likes to reflect the shine of the spotlight upon fellow bandmates. Within the context of VSOP and his other ensembles, the pianist time and again unselfishly supports his colleagues as they fly over his buoyant "comping." The twisting improv of headliners like Wynton Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin are enhanced dramatically by the pianist's lovely miniatures constructed in the music's shadows. A splash of dissonance. A two-note trinkle-tinkle. A soft echo of something the soloist just played just to let the cats know that, hey, the piano player is listening. Among his peers, Hancock's ears are legendary--and this anthology subtly demonstrates why.

Alongside Weather Report and Return to Forever, Herbie's Headhunters was the best-selling band of the fusion era. Disc 3 revisits the group's delightfully chunky boom-chick-a-boom of the early '70s, built upon the shake-and-bake drums of Harvey Mason and, later, Mike Clarke. The aforementioned "Chameleon" and the stutter-step cadence of "Actual Proof" wiggle like primo disco percolating with brainy dancers in mind. Atop the beats, Hancock sneaks in his own searing solos, as well as darting sax and flute rides by all-purpose reedman Bennie Maupin. The result is a sort of super-palatable jazz-in-disguise. Even the ballads--like the soft-winged "Butterfly"--are somehow danceable. Such is the force of the Headhunters' rhythmic surge.

Sadly, Hancock has never managed to recapture the groove-alicious quality of the 'Hunters' bump-and-grind with any of his subsequent dance music. By comparison, even the snap of "Rockit," the Bill Laswell-produced robo-smash of 1981 reprised on Disc 4, doesn't come close.

So the moral of the story is: Don't show up at the Carolina anticipating the rebirth of world-class funk, HH-style. At least for the moment, he's been there, done that and moved on down the road. My best guess is that, instead, Hancock and company in concert will place the musical emphasis firmly upon unadulterated jazz. The chameleon will eschew bodacious red and raging orange--and dress in classic medium-tones. In other words, Herbie's gonna leave his brash electric keyboards at home.

To prep for the show, seek out a pair of recent CDs. Directions in Music (Verve), a freshly waxed live date fronted by Hancock, saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, is a tasteful tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. On Directions, familiar standards like "So What" (Davis) and "Naima" ('Trane) float along, prancing ethereally. The repertoire is modern-sounding, cerebral and, despite the efforts of drummer extaordinaire Brian Blade, lacking in serious rhythmic momentum.

My ears prefer drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's moody Jazz is a Spirit (ACT), a German import co-starring both Hancock and saxophonist Gary Thomas. That's the core of the quartet that will play in Durham.

Carrington, now 37, has been gigging and recording with Hancock for several years, but locals may remember her from two decades ago, when Duke artist-in-rez Paul Jeffrey booked her as a precocious teenager to headline the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. She has since risen to the top of the percussion profession, stick-handling for singer Dianne Reeves, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and other notables. Significantly, she has also blossomed into a creative composer, as confirmed by her 12 evocative originals on Jazz is a Spirit.

A cohesive and contemporary statement, Spirit frames sizzling horn solos, a bit of hip poetry recitation and drums aplenty. But the CD's real worth can be found in TLC's pen. Like her former boss, Maestro Shorter, Carrington the composer possesses a flair for the melancholy. Like wisps of picturesque clouds above a desert, her melodies often hover weightlessly above stark harmonic landscapes. She does not feel the need to resolve anything. Musically speaking, it is the composer's way of saying that a little sonic ambiguity is tres cool.

Of course, Carrington the drummer is still bad to the bone. She's an athlete, bouncing from cymbals to skins. Onstage Friday she'll approximate a visual blur of busy hands and spinning braids as she unveils her trademark stick-tricks. Her specialty: the nifty superimposition of a lightly funky backbeat upon the four-to-the-bar pulse of traditional jazz. At her finest, Carrington embodies the logical juxtaposition of old-school rhythms and what's new.

There's more good news. The Indy's spies tell us that the Hancock 4tet's set-list for this tour now includes several of Carrington's tunes. Her nod to Shorter, "Samsara," a ballad of heart-melting intensity, would sound just fine winging out of Hancock's grand piano on Friday night. EndBlock

To find out more, visit www.legacyrecordings.com/herbiehancock, www.herbiehancock.com, www.vervemusicgroup.com, www.terrilynecarrington.com and www.actmusic.com.

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