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Live review: Herbie Hancock's 'Seven Decades - The Birthday Celebration' at the Hollywood Bowl

September 2, 2010 |  3:25 pm

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There’s a modification of an old joke that came to mind on Wednesday night. “What does a 70-year-old jazz legend get to play on his birthday at the Hollywood Bowl?” The answer for the great Herbie Hancock is, of course, anything he wants.

Not that this would be anything new for Hancock, who has always gone his own way. Starting his career at only 21, the pianist has zigzagged through an array of musical high points that have included eye-opening bandleader, sideman to Miles Davis in a historic jazz combo and innovative cross-pollinator, first with the raucous jazz-funk fusion of the Headhunters and later helping launch both the hip-hop and music-video eras with 1983’s “Rockit.” And that doesn’t even cover an album of the year Grammy in 2008 for “River.”

Billed as “Seven Decades — The Birthday Celebration,” the L.A. Philharmonic realistically needed two or three nights to adequately capture Hancock, who is in his first year as its Creative Chair for Jazz. In a lineup full of high-wattage guests, the program was split into two parts, the first consisting of Hancock’s groundbreaking, mostly acoustic ’60s work and the latter dedicated to Hancock’s equally influential electric period and his new album, “The Imagine Project.”

Though most of the near-capacity crowd knew to arrive early, it was easy to pity the few stragglers hustling to their seats through Hancock’s first set. Opening with a weaving, breezy take on Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” the wealth of experience onstage was awe-inspiring as the pianist was joined by longtime collaborator Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Jack DeJohnette on drums, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and, briefly, electric bassist Nathan East.

Joined soon after by expressive young bassist Esperanza Spalding, the group eased into “Orbits,” a Shorter composition from the Davis years. While Blanchard filled Davis’ shoes beautifully with bright, arcing trumpet lines, it was Spalding who wowed the crowd with an acrobatic, joyful duel with Hancock that knocked around the song’s edges, showing she could more than hold her own with the veteran masters.

HerbieHancockPromo A textured, free exploration punctuated by DeJohnette’s shape-shifting percussion proved Hancock could still venture out without a net, but a set-closing “Cantaloupe Island” never entirely coalesced into the original’s insistent, clockwork rhythm (memorably sampled by the hip-hop group Us3 in the ‘90s, another example of Hancock’s broad reach beyond genres and generations).

Such themes run deep through “The Imagine Project,” an album loaded with high-profile guests from around the world, and, like the album, the results onstage were at times uneven. India.Arie gamely carried the lead vocal of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which gained a fairly irresistible African-informed midsection from guitarist Lionel Loueke, but the song’s brassy opening by vocalist Kristina Train had little of the nuance Lennon’s plaintively hopeful lyrics demand.

Later collaborations such as the raga-dusted “Song Goes On” with tabla master Zakir Hussain and sitar player Niladri Kumar, and a cover of “The Times, They Are a’ Changin’” led by dusky-voiced Irish singer Lisa Hannigan fared better, as did “Tatamant Tilay / Exodus,” which featured the airily elegant Debbie Allen Dance Academy in the place of Malian trance-rockers Tinariwen, who appeared in a recorded backing track.

But the night got its greatest burst of energy from Hancock himself. Proving that even at 70 no one rocks a hip-slung keytar quite so convincingly, Hancock playfully faced down Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa during an extended “Watermelon Man” that brought laughs from both the crowd and the musicians.

After an abbreviated but still lethally funky “Chameleon” closed down the night, Hancock checked his watch as his many friends swayed to “Rockit” at curtain call, butting against the Bowl’s curfew. With a spirit still eager to stretch into new directions, Hancock still sounds timeless.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Herbie Hancock in the moment at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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