Monday, June 25, 2007

Herbie Hancock/ Kenny Garrett Quartet, June 24, Jazz Winnipeg Festival

Venue: The Burton Cummings Theatre
Audience: 1200

The first act, the Kenny Garrett Quartet, were brilliant straight-ahead jazz. During their first number, which lasted almost 20 minutes, Garrett wailed away on the sax like his life depended on it. After what seemed like 10 minutes, he finally let up and passed the soloing spotlight onto someone else. I thought he was going to drop dead from playing so intense, for so long. Garrett's drummer, the dread-locked Jamire Williams , was incredible, as the bass player and piano player, Nat Reeves and Benito Gonzalez, were no slouches, either. Apart from being able to play straight-ahead jazz like a runaway locomotive, Garrett and Gonzalez reduced the speed considerably for some beautiful ballads from Korea and Japan, featuring Garrett on the soprano sax.

Throughout the show, Garrett kept on beckoning the audience to make more noise or to clap along. There was so much of that going on that I began to wish he would just tone it down a tad and let the audience participate as they saw fit. There was no way that anyone would mistake the electrified crowd as being docile and ready to nod off. Especially not with the huge anticipation of seeing the legendary Herbie Hancock. Garrett's performance was as world-class as it gets.

I'm not crazy about the funky or electronic Herbie Hancock, much preferring his straight-ahead acoustic work. Unfortunately for me, Hancock's performance was a liberal overview of his career and it included that which I do not like and even more new pop material that I could have done without. Still, the audience was polite and cheered perhaps more than I would have. Given his musical pedigree, they gave him a standing ovation when he first walked on stage, which was appropriate and warmly appreciated.

They opened up with the funky tune "Actual Proof" from the early 1970's, followed by an experimental collaboration between guitarist Lionel Loueke's "Seventeens" and Hancock's 1962 smash, "Watermelon Man." While artistically inventive, it didn't quite interest me. Later on, Loueke had the stage all to himself as the band took a break and the African-born guitarist played, tapped and mouthed percussive sounds in an interesting but again, out of place, performance.

Hancock was stunning when playing the acoustic grand piano, but as soon as he touched anything electronic, it was terribly boring to me. Probably the biggest disappointment of the entire set was the performances of pop songs from his recent CD, Possibilties, in which Hancock worked with top pop stars. The ever-grinning electric bassist Nathan East, a veteran session and touring player who has played on many hit singles and albums, sang the Stevie Wonder hit, "I Just Called To Say I Love You," the BB King/ U2 tune "When Loves Comes To Town," and John Mayer's "Stitched Up." While receiving warm applause, he inclusion of these pop songs seemed totally out of place. Herbie Hancock remains a giant among men in the jazz world. Why did he even record such an album? Once you record it, you've got to support it on tour, which is what we witnessed that evening.

The popular Hancock tracks "Maiden Voyage," an introspective, evocative piece and "Cantaloupe Island," a signature piece from the 1964 album Empyrean Isles, closed out the main set.

During the encore, "Chameleon," from the Head Hunters album, Kenny Garrett stepped in and saved the final tune from slipping into mediocrity.

Herbie Hancock would have been excellent with just him on piano, a bass player and a drummer. Maybe next time. Instead of playing safe for purists fans like myself, Hancock went out on a few limbs as would be befitting his rich musical heritage. Miles Davis would have done the same, I suppose.

My rating for the Kenny Garrett Quartet is 5/5.

My rating for Herbie Hancock is 2/5.

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