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Jazz review: Herbie Hancock at Walt Disney Concert Hall

March 6, 2011 | 12:19 pm

It’s a blessing and a curse of living in Los Angeles that we’re almost able to take a Herbie Hancock concert for granted. A regular and welcome presence around the city’s music scene, particularly since being named the L.A. Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for jazz last year, Hancock could have easily sailed under the radar going into Saturday night’s show at Disney Hall, considering his 70th birthday concert and retrospective at the Hollywood Bowl was just under six months ago.

But the attentive, near-capacity crowd who turned out witnessed something special. Joined by an all-star band that included two fellow pillars of jazz history in saxophonist and longtime friend Wayne Shorter and bassist Dave Holland, along with the chameleonic Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Hancock wasn’t offering a summation of his career or highlighting a recent album like 2010’s ambitious but uneven “The Imagine Project” or the Grammy-winning “River: The Joni Letters” (a possibility since this quartet constituted the core of that album’s lineup).

No, this was a night of unfettered, all-acoustic adventure, one that opened with nearly an hour of uninterrupted music so freely evolving and expressive there was a feeling Hancock had simply invited friends over to his house on Grand Avenue for a casual jam session.

With Hancock getting things started with a contemplative solo that simmered into a rumble of notes from his left hand, Holland eased behind him with a slow-burning bass figure as Colaiuta gradually opened the window to a storm behind his drums. As the trio coalesced into an off-kilter melody, Shorter entered on tenor, twisting the music into new corners as Hancock hammered on the keys to punctuate his advances.

The second piece began as a showcase for Colaiuta, who may have been the least familiar name on the bill but was both the night’s anchor and its wild card. Unleashing an orchestra of percussion at several points, Colaiuta exhibited an otherworldly way of subtly mutating a song’s core, boiling it down into something unrecognizable and deftly bringing it back. With Hancock tiptoeing playfully behind him, Holland took a solo of his own that began with an elegant grace but exploded in a tangled workout, setting the stage for the song’s shift into an anthemic drive that brushed against New Orleans R&B.

Finally, the familiar melody of Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” crept out of his piano like a murmured prayer, marking the evening’s first visit to familiar territory, though even that was gently deconstructed in the band’s restless hands. Later, Hancock’s irresistibly funky “Cantaloupe Island” appeared to close down the night with a raucous fanfare behind Shorter’s assured saxophone lead and Hancock’s piano, which stuttered and danced around Colaiuta and Holland’s deep groove.

While Hancock can be an engaging storyteller onstage, he paused only once to introduce his band, along with “Visitor from Nowhere,” a shape-shifting and mystery-filled Shorter composition from a 1997 duet album with Hancock that had been reworked for a tour with Holland and Brian Blade in 2004.

“I’m not trying to snub anybody by not talking,” Hancock said. “I was just hoping and praying the music would speak for itself.”

Mission accomplished.

-- Chris Barton


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Photo: Herbie Hancock, left, and Wayne Shorter at Disney Hall. Credit: Christina House/Los Angeles Times