Grammy-winner muses on mentor Miles Davis
Seemingly buoyed by his recent Grammy triumph for album of the year and appearing as youthful as ever, 68-year-old Herbie Hancock treated about 300 fans to a generous cross-section of his remarkably varied ouevre on a Fox soundstage Thursday night.
But it was the presence of Joni Mitchell who made the evening, a taping of the latest "Nissan Live Sets on Yahoo! Music," unique. The artist whose material is the bulk of "River: The Joni Letters," sang three of her own compositions, including the title tune from "River."
In a way, the limitations of Mitchell's husky voice in this mature phase of her career -- skillfully avoiding high notes -- underscored the gorgeous elasticity and soulfulness of Corinne Bailey Rae's version of "River" on Hancock's album, but also Mitchell's ability to craft timeless ballads of the utmost complexity and emotion.
Also included in the Mitchell segment were "Tea Leaf Prophesy," also on Hancock's record, and "Hana," from her recent "Shine" album. The combination of Mitchell's narrative way with a song, and the counterpoint of Hancock's acoustic piano -- more lushly lyrical than on the Verve recording -- that gave this guest appearance its of-the-moment uniqueness that made listeners feel privy to something truly special.
Bob Sheppard's soprano sax wove through the proceedings with haunting delicacy, and bassist Marcus Miller summoned the spirit of Jaco Pastorius -- specifically his playing on Mitchell's masterpiece "Hejira." As on Hancock's record, Vinnie Colaiuta was the drummer.
Miller provided the glue that fused together the various styles on display, whether it be the super-charged funk of "Chameleon," from Hancock's Headhunters phase (and a moniker that might best describe Hancock's career), or a dynamic medley that fused guitarist Lionel Louke's composition, "Seven Teens," with Hancock's funk classic "Watermelon Man." For those who suspect Hancock might be coasting on covers and duets, or that his pop sensibility has dulled his prodigious technique, the pianist put those fears to rest with a solo acoustic version of his evergreen "Maiden Voyage," with Hancock taking a circuitous yet gorgeously lyrical route to the theme.
The performance, clumsily interrupted at times by the necessities that taping for Yahoo's webcast entails, was broken up into three acts with Q&A interludes between sets.
Most illuminating was Hancock's musings on his "No. 1 musical mentor," Miles Davis. The keyboardist recalled some of Davis's at times cryptic bits of advice, such as "put a B in the bass" or "don't play the butter notes." Hancock would recall scratching his head at such suggestions, attempting in vain to glean their literal meaning only to realize Davis' abstract prompts were a way to goad him into coming up with his own solutions, and to reach beyond his comfort zone.
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