Travels with Herbie, and Much More

Fringe Beat

GLOBALIZE THIS: When Herbie Hancock last played hereabouts, in May at the Ventura Music Festival, he was at the vapor-trailing end of a long and unusually high-profile phase. He stunned the world, especially the chronically under-sung jazz world, by winning the Best Album Grammy for River: The Joni Letters, and embarked on an extensive world tour (also stopping at Campbell Hall). At last, it’s time for the next phase, fed by River. Sound and spirit are strong. Welcome to his ambitious new pop-jazz-soul-world The Imagine Project.

Herbie Hancock

Before hitting the Euro jazz-fest circuit, Hancock struck up the band at the Montreal Jazz Festival last Sunday in one of the more anticipated shows of this great festival (still possibly the world’s greatest “general purpose” jazz fest). Expectations buzzed in the SRO Théâtre Maisonneuve: would Herbie reach new heights and/or broach new breadths, of music and potential audience? Yes … and maybe.

After some summing up of Hancock’s past, including the heady funky opener “Actual Proof,” a medley of old faves and a taste of River (“Court and Spark”), Hancock got busy with his intriguing new project, more openly accessible and less jazz-lined than River, but also more idealistic in purview. As Hancock explained, in the wake of the turbulence over the G8 meeting in Toronto over the weekend, he is keen on grappling with globalization and the reality of immigrant societies in the best, positive senses. He asserted that his album was “a way to look at the world, and do something” about it.

On this album, brushing across seven languages and multiple musical languages, Hancock is freely cross-cultural and cross-idiomatic, serving up an Africanized “Imagine,” an exoticized take on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” and a medley of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (including a verse in Gaelic) and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Hancock’s current band is sturdy and vocally enriched, featuring the compelling new bluesy-yet-supple singer Kristina Train, limber young Australian bassist/singer Tal Wilkenfeld (who backed up Jeff Beck here last year), and veteran journeyman Greg Phillinganes on keyboards and surprisingly bold soul-man vocals. Old Hancock allies, guitarist Lionel Lueke and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, provided continuity and chops. Hancock’s adventure in the extra-jazz public continues apace.

In Montreal this time of year, the strength of jazz, as well as its fragility, virtually gush into theaters and the streets. At 31, the festival remains an institutional anchor, but there is now more pop in the mix and less of the token avant-garde programming. Still, as always, there is plenty to rouse the spirits of a jazz addict. Before Hancock, the sage Sonny Rollins arrived in his big red shirt, silver ‘fro, and strength of musical will, in a band minus trombonist Clifton Anderson, and with guitarist Russell Malone replacing Bobby Broom. Three intriguing trumpeters held forth in the smaller, smarter, Gesu venue: artfully romantic Italian Paolo Fresu (with ripe foil Ralph Towner), Norwegian hypnotist Nils Petter Molvaer, and American-deserving-great-exposure Wallace Roney.

HEADS UP: For diehard jazz fans with disposable income and flexible schedules, be advised. The remainder of Montreal’s program, through Sunday, makes Montreal the hottest jazz spot on the continent this weekend. On the dense roster are Keith Jarrett’s trio, a John Zorn Masada Marathon, Brubeck, Scofield, a Laurie Anderson/Lou Reed/Zorn confab, Tomasz Stańko, a new Jack DeJohnette group, and the proverbial Much More (which Montreal always seems to have going for it).

TO-DOINGS: Experimentalist fringe music is alive and well in Santa Barbara, if in modest portions. The monthly parade of “outcats” thankfully continues via the long-running Santa Barbara New Music Series. Next Thursday’s fare at Muddy Waters includes a rare performance by the venturesome L.A. guitarist Jim McAuley (here, with Andrew Pask and Scott Walton), whose personalized menu includes echoes of Derek Bailey and John Fahey. Also on his twisty résumé are studio work with Frank Sinatra and a guitaroid trio with Nels (Wilco) Cline and the sadly belated microtonalist avatar Rod Poole.


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