On Friday night, I saw Herbie Hancock perform solo at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. It was pretty incredible. I’ve been a fan of Herbie’s music for the last twelve years or so, since the end of high school, and as far as I know, this was the first time he’s been to the Twin Cities since I’ve known who he was, so I jumped at the chance to go see him. Especially since this was Herbie performing solo, which I thought would be fascinating. It was.
Herbie took the stage attired in a red and black shirt and black pants, looking very fit and much younger than his 71 years. He started telling us a story about performing at the Guthrie Theater in 1973 with his Headhunters band. Partway through the concert, a fan jumped down from the rafters and landed on Herbie, knocking him to the floor. (To illustrate this, Herbie laid down on the floor of the stage as he told this part of the story.) Lying on the floor, he reached up for his keyboard and kept playing! Herbie is a natural storyteller, and he radiated a warm and open personality as he talked to us several times in between songs. On stage Herbie had a grand piano and an electric keyboard, with a couple of computer monitors set up as well. He opened with a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” on acoustic piano. Herbie and Wayne played together on the original version of “Footprints,” recorded in 1966 when they were both part of Miles Davis’s “Second Classic Quintet.” The song is on the “Miles Smiles” LP, which I would highly recommend to any fan of Davis, Shorter, or Hancock. The way Herbie played “Footprints” I certainly didn’t recognize it. He played it with a lot of stops and starts, and there wasn’t much of a jazz groove to it. As Herbie said in his intro to the song, “This isn’t your garden variety footprints.” Next he played a solo version of his 1965 classic “Dolphin Dance.” Again, it was very different from the original version. While these first two songs weren’t my favorite performances of the night, it was still fascinating to watch Herbie improvise. When you’re performing solo, you’re really working without a net. My thought going into the concert was that I would definitely be satisfied in seeing the process even if I didn’t care for the results that much. Obviously, I wanted to hear great music, and I did. Seeing a genius like Herbie Hancock creating music all by himself on stage was reward enough, even when I wasn’t really following where Herbie was going. It was still interesting to hear, and never dull. Herbie’s next song was “Sonrisa,” which he wrote for his 1997 album “1+1,” an album of duets with Wayne Shorter. Like the first two songs, “Sonrisa” was pretty long, probably about 10-15 minutes.
After the more far-out explorations of the first three songs, Herbie returned to more familiar territory with a lovely version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” which was beautiful. Hancock has certainly not lost any of his touch on the keys. “Embraceable You” settled into a jazzier groove than the previous songs, and I definitely enjoyed it more than the other songs. Herbie then played one of his most famous and grooviest songs, “Cantaloupe Island,” from 1964. Herbie used some samples to help with the beat, and he moved to the keyboard after starting the song at the piano. About halfway through the song, he switched to keytar, and energetically moved around the front of the stage-he was obviously having fun playing the keytar! “Cantaloupe Island” had more of the funky, soulful feel that Herbie is most well-known for, and he was really digging into his solos on it. It was definitely my favorite song of the night, and it's one of my all-time favorite Herbie Hancock songs. Herbie then played “Chameleon” for the encore, again with a lot of awesome keytar soloing. All told, Herbie played for an hour and a half. Hancock clearly seems to still enjoy performing and is still creating something new every night he performs. He still loves performing, and I think that always makes for a great show. Friday night was an amazing chance to see a jazz legend perform solo.