Herbie Hancock and the three members of his band strolled onto the stage at the Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, on Sunday night to wild applause.
There was no offstage announcer to introduce them. It wasn’t necessary. The audience was more than ready to take in the master keyboardist, composer and bandleader who has been at the top of his game since the early 1960s.
“Overture” was the opening 25-minute blend of audience favorites, most of which were reimaginings of Hancock classics. There were snippets of “Butterfly” from his 1974 album “Thrust.” That opening compilation was a setup for the audience to receive the full range of Hancock’s powerfully talented band that included Trevor Lawrence Jr. on drums, Lionel Loueke on guitar and James Genus on bass.
A journey through Hancock’s career shows how he has evolved from traditional, mainstream and bop genres in jazz from his start with Donald Byrd and Miles Davis. He has remained relevant and a pioneer in the jazz world as he ushered establish a standard for experimenting with jazz fusion, funk and electronic pop.
On one selection, Hancock sang through a vodocor, a device that distorts and expands vocal quality. It provided a nice interplay between Hancock and guitarist Lionel Loueke, who created some amazing sounds from what looked like a regular electric guitar, or maybe it wasn’t. There were times when Hancock and Loueke where going back and forth so hard that bassist James Genus just backed toward the side of the stage and let the two go at it.
The quartet gave the audience another medley of Hancock favorites, anchored by the classic “Cantaloupe Island” from his 1964 album “Empyrean Isles.” Moving through this group of compositions, there were bits of “Speak Like a Child,” the title cut from his 1968 album. The arrangement of this medley was, again, infused with the electronic reworking of beloved songs from Hancock’s catalog.
At age 78, Hancock’s performance demonstrated how he continues to go beyond any preset limits on the jazz genre. The interplay between his keyboard artistry and his bandmates let the adoring audience see the group was in sync, while allowing each musician to stretch outside the lines.
Addressing the audience after the opening number, a grateful Hancock praised his band for their superior music acumen and improvisational style.
“Do you know how hard it is to work with these guys?” Hancock said. “They might do anything at anytime and I have to stay on my toes.”
Any musician playing with Hancock knows they have to stay on their toes, because he has and will continue to be a top music innovator.