Time/space traveler Herbie Hancock takes Tahoe for a ride
Herbie Hancock and his superstar quintet took a sold-out audience in the MontBleu Theater at Lake Tahoe on a wild fusion-fueled trip on Aug. 18 that started in outer space before traveling back to earth to 1964, circling Cantaloupe Island and then landing in the funky territory of the Head Hunters.
The legendary 76-year-old jazzman was greeted with a standing ovation. Smiling, dapper and lean, Hancock took a seat behind keyboards and started the journey with a nearly half-hour fusion of pleasant, rhythmic and unexpected sounds, especially from the guitar and voice of Lionel Louke.
Addressing the audience, Hancock explained the extended, multi-faceted opening music.
“You were probably wondering what was happening,” he said. “We call it ‘Overture’ and it’s really spacey.” The crowd cheered and the bandleader responded, “We’ve got space cadets here. We’ve got an eclipse coming in a couple of days. I’m going.”
Hancock is apt to boldly take music to unexplored areas.
From 1963-68 he played with the greatest modal jazz ensemble, the Miles Davis Quintet. He introduced funk to jazz with his 1973 album and band “Head Hunters.” And he brought synthesizer into the medium with the 1983 album “Future Shock,” which included the song and MTV video sensation “Rockit.”
As one of the most revered jazz players on the planet, Hancock has coalesced a collection of superstars.
“I know we have a lot of drummers here,” Hancock inquired. Rather than responding with hoots and hollers, a couple dozen members of the classy jazz audience confirmed their presence by raising their hands like the students they are.
Vinnie Colaiuta already has been inducted in the Modern Drummer and Classic Drummer halls of fame. He’s played in every musical genre, even country, but most notably also has played with Chick Corea, the Buddy Rich Big Band and Frank Zappa.
“You won’t hear anything finer than the way he plays,” Hancock said. “You’ve got the top of the line, then the top of the heap and then the cherry on top. He’s the cherry on top.”
Next, Hancock quipped, is the bottom, introducing six-string electric bass guitarist James Genus, who also plays with the Saturday Night Live Band.
“He’s Mr. Funk,” Hancock said. “He plays at the bottom and is as funky as he wants to be. Think about how many musical styles there are in the world. Well, he does them all. All the band leaders want to hire him, but guess where he is tonight?”
And there was the 38-year-old Terrace Martin, who played keyboard and alto sax on this night, and as well on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which received seven Grammy nominations and sold a million copies, an unheard of total in this day and age. Martin has produced albums for Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg and many, many more.
“I am among the young musicians whose record he’s produced,” Hancock said. “The more I play with him the younger I get. That’s the key.”
Hancock didn’t discover the 33-year-old guitarist Louke, but he recognized his talent early on. Loueke is from the country of Benin in West Africa. As a youngster learning guitar, he couldn’t afford to replace broken strings so he replaced them with bicycle brake cables. He studied jazz in Paris before receiving a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Then, after a worldwide search by a team of judges that included Hancock, he was selected for UCLA’s Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
Loueke appeared to simultaneously sing in different languages and with different voices.
“It sounds like there’s more than one person in there,” Hancock said.
Hancock sang vocals through his synthesizer on “Come Running to Me” from his 1978 fusion album “Sunlight.” Each of the songs performed during the show would segue into others before returning to the original, delighting the knowing audience.
Toward the finish, the band played the jazz standard “Cantaloupe Island,” which Hancock penned while playing with Davis, cementing a legacy at the age of just 23. The tune would crescendo then fall back to earth as the musicians smiled and nodded to each other, pleased to be contributing members of a jazz dream team.
Hancock said goodnight to the crowd, which refused. Returning for an encore, the band performed “Chameleon,” the opening track from “Head Hunters,” the album that revolutionized jazz, making it popular with hipsters.
During the evening, Hancock and his band not only traveled through time, they seemed to change time. The 2 hour and 10 minute show seemed more like a half-hour.
Come Running To Me
ABOUT Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.