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Herbie Hancock’s Lifetime Perspective

March 16, 2012

Trying to identify the most important periods of jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s lengthy career is a little like trying to pick Mozart’s best compositions. The answer to both questions, of course, is, “All of them.”

Hancock, who went from being part of Miles Davis’ second great quintet in 1963 to serving as artist-in-residence at Bonnaroo in 2005 with countless stops in between, brought his protean talents to an enthusiastic crowd at Madison’s Overture Hall Thursday night. As one of the last of the living jazz giants, Hancock, who turns 72 next month, cruised through a lifetime of music in two hours. The concert’s only shortcoming is that it didn’t last all night.

The Chicago-born keyboard player was backed by James Genus on bass, Trevor Lawrence, Jr. on drums, and Lionel Loueke, the remarkable Beninese guitar player who soared with his own solo halfway through the performance. Loueke drew on his West African roots, occupying Overture Hall with both complex fingering and synthesized singing that for many of us created a most unique musical mid-point to the show.

On either side, Hancock and his band served up lengthy renditions from many periods of his career, including a little funk flavoring from his Headhunters period that riffed on favorite “Watermelon Man” to soulful solo piano on Overture’s magnificent Steinway concert grand. Hancock even hauled out the Vocorder, the voice synthesizer he popularized in the late 1970s, to add a unique vocal styling to “Come Running to Me” from 1977’s Sunlight.

Hancock established early a solid groove that ran the length of the evening and through many iterations, a joyful, rhythmic pulse reflecting a lengthy career. Speaking for all of us who leapt to our feet at the close of the concert, let me just say thanks, Herbie, for taking us along, even for a short part of so impressive a ride.

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