A Musician Who Mixes and Matches
By NATE CHINEN
Herbie Hancock, the keyboardist and bandleader, performed at Carnegie Hall on Monday night.
Herbie Hancock was in good form as a host at Carnegie Hall on Monday night: gregarious, generous, unassuming, charming. And as a pianist he produced moments of typically ingenious effervescence. His problems arose in other areas, like concept and organization. But those things are crucial, and so the concert, part of the JVC Jazz Festival, felt glib and undernourished. It should have been a lot better than it was.
As you may have heard, Mr. Hancock won album of the year at the most recent Grammy Awards. That was for “River: The Joni Letters” (Verve), his luminous reflection on the music of Joni Mitchell, with a cadre of singers that includes Ms. Mitchell herself. He also featured guest vocalists on his previous album, “Possibilities” (Vector/Hear Music), which involved a more explicit pop agenda and maybe twice the star wattage. Mr. Hancock’s JVC appearance — he’ll also perform at the JVC festival in Newport, R.I., on Aug. 10 — coincides with his “River of Possibilities” tour, which draws equally from those recent releases.
There’s nothing wrong with that plan, inherently. But the two singers on the tour fell flat on Monday: in context, one came across as distinctly unpleasant and the other as pleasantly indistinct. Sonya Kitchell, a singer-songwriter who usually plays acoustic guitar, probably seemed like a natural fit for Ms. Mitchell’s songs, but on “River” and “All I Want” she struggled glaringly with overemphasis and intonation. As for Amy Keys, she was dutifully bluesy on the Bono-meets-B. B. King stomper “When Love Comes to Town,” and cautiously soulful on the Leon Russell ballad “A Song for You.”
The singers weren’t the only issue. Mr. Hancock was onstage with some highly capable colleagues — the tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, the bassist Dave Holland, the guitarist Lionel Loueke and the drummer Vinnie Colaiuta — but he didn’t give them room to breathe. While “River” includes haunting jazz extrapolations of Ms. Mitchell’s songs, there was no such moment in the show. Mr. Holland played more electric bass than acoustic, which worked serviceably in context, but undercut his deep authority.
When a jazz musician strives for crossover success, some turbulence is only natural. Mr. Hancock has broken this sound barrier many times, though, without previously succumbing to mediocrity or cynicism. The show included a few reminders of that achievement, opening with “Actual Proof,” from his 1974 funk- fusion classic “Thrust,” and closing with “Cantaloupe Island” and “Chameleon,” two of the most durable instrumental pop hits ever written. In each instance there were flashes of spirited playing, but not enough chemistry or conviction.
Those qualities were much more evident in an opening set by Mr. Loueke and his trio, with Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums. Working with capricious harmonic movement and serpentine grooves, they made music of engrossing intricacy and ambition. Mr. Hancock joined them for a song called “Seven Teens,” as he does on Mr. Loueke’s most recent album, “Karibu” (Blue Note). He seemed to enjoy the challenge, and the audacious energies of musicians with something to prove other than their appeal.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company