At least four Herbie Hancocks showed up for a Carnegie Hall concert at this year’s JVC Jazz Festival, which was fitting. A week prior, the festival screened a documentary on the making of Possibilities, Hancock’s CD of collaborations with pop stars from Paul Simon to Christina Aguilera, which came off as an attempt to cram Hancock’s expansive musicianship into radio-worthy moments. The Carnegie show was about collaborations too, but born of Hancock’s working relationships and rooted in jazz. Such concept concerts—a brief bio in four sets—generally suffer from abrupt mood swings and uneven pacing. Yet this one had its moments, especially at the beginning and end.
Bill Cosby offered witticisms at a pre-concert reception, but his onstage introduction went like this: “Jack DeJohnette. Ron Carter. Herbie Hancock.” Hancock and
Carter exchanged ideas with a sensitivity worthy of their Miles Davis work as the trio walked Hancock’s “Toys” through a range of tempos and ingeniously avoided the melody of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Thought About You.” Michael Brecker, absent recently due to a bone marrow disease, brought the crowd to its feet just by showing up; his climactic tenor solo during Hancock’s “One Finger Snap” heightened the triumphant mood.
The shift to Hancock’s new quintet was jarring, not least for the sudden loss of focus. Hancock was surrounded by too many keyboards and accompanied by too many willing soloists. When bassist Marcus Miller joined in for Hancock’s funk anthem “Chameleon,” the music tightened admirably if datedly. But Hancock’s duets with Gonzalo Rubalcaba wiped away any previous sins. Essaying Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” the two pianists offered a startling contrast of touch—Rubalcaba’s light and glistening, Hancock’s denser and more resonant. Each issued subtle harmonic and rhythmic challenges, every one answered.
Hancock’s closest personal and music relationship, with Wayne Shorter, yielded the evening’s best segment. The two had toured in this quartet before, with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Brian Blade, and their comfort showed. Two Shorter tunes and one by Holland formed an extended suite, its ebb-and-flow irregular but wholly organic. Though Shorter took one worthy soprano solo, more impressive were the small details: Shorter’s breathy tenor runs through Hancock’s clever changes, Holland’s bounding ostinatos, Blade’s ingenious displacements. These were possibilities—the endless kinds.