Jazz's highest-profile keyboardist says he is interested in projects that could be "events, not just records". The flagship night of this year's London Jazz Festival certainly lives up to that hope, as Herbie Hancock ignores recent albums and unleashes his most vibrant group for years.
A long Sixties stint with Miles Davis gives Hancock leeway to wallow in the commercialism usually decried by purists. His solo output has ranged from the lounge standard "Watermelon Man" through the fusionist Headhunters to the electro hit "Rockit". After the tedious Possibilities album that saw him collaborate with Christina Aguilera and Damien Rice, he restored his reputation with 2007's Grammy-winning set of lush Joni Mitchell covers – yet tonight is all about his new sextet.
They set about the star name's back catalogue with compelling intensity. Headhunters-era "Actual Proof" clips along, while the earlier "Speak Like a Child" comes with adolescent fury. Hancock shakes off his 68 years, firing off arpeggios with force, speed and precision. Harmonica player Gregoire Maret and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, composer of most of Spike Lee's soundtracks, play with near abandon, their solos building up to extreme feats of lung-busting that leave the latter, at least, visibly spent. Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke brings a touch of exoticism, and not just with his bright orange attire. The group play his composition "Seven Teens" – bars, not years, Hancock explains, making this a demanding feat. All handle its density with aplomb, especially drummer Kendrick Scott, who adds his own Afrobeat touches.
Not even his restless invention can save the doldrums of "V", a number by fellow Davis acolyte Wayne Shorter that Hancock explains stands for visitors, which judging from its 2001: A Space Odyssey-style fanfare means from another world. The band lose direction during its spacey excursion. Yet over three hours, the pace rarely lessens.
Finally comes the party piece. Hancock shoulders a strapped-on keyboard for Headhunters' calling card "Chameleon", to duel with each bandmate in turn, applying different sounds, from guitar to human voice. Such a tactic brings light relief – he often plays this for laughs – but the white instrument and cheesy effects remain stubbornly dated, like an embarrassing uncle's dance at a wedding. The same, though, cannot be said of the rest of his set. As he pushes 70, Hancock remains full of surprises. Touring to 20 NovemberReuse content