Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock

When we last heard from Herbie Hancock, he was firing up the Power to the People! festival in Walt Disney Concert Hall — first in a set of expanded arrangements of his compositions with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and then in another set with a superb jazz/jazz-funk quintet of kindred spirits. That was on March 5, 2020. Exactly one week later, music came to a sudden, shuddering halt as COVID-19 shut everything down. It was the last concert I saw before the shutdown — and to me, it seemed like a perfect summary of several of my musical interests, something to savor as the many months of nothing passed.

Cue in the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night (Sept. 26). We haven’t quite come out of the other end of the pandemic yet, but Herbie Hancock was back nonetheless, picking up pretty much where he left off 18 months before and taking off from there. He was finishing up a U.S. tour that began in Chicago at the beginning of September and stopped in at the Monterey Jazz Festival Friday on the way to the Bowl — and if anything, his set matched and at times even exceeded what I heard at Disney Hall in terms of groove and musical ideas.

This time, Hancock brought his touring band — Lionel Loueke (guitar), James Genus (bass), Elena Pinderhughes (flute, vocals), and Justin Tyson (drums). Loueke and Genus had appeared at the Disney Hall concert, but Pinderhughes and Tyson were new to us here, and it made a difference.

Elena Pinderhughes
Elena Pinderhughes | Credit: Katherine Tom

Pinderhughes’s lovely, agile flute playing brings something new to Hancock’s music, a breezy, fluid timbre that encircles and floats over the rhythm section. She gets a sound wreathed in light reverb that is similar to that of Hubert Laws, has technique to burn, and sings well, too. In particular, Hancock’s vocoder showcase circa 1978, “Come Running to Me,” benefits hugely from a flute lead; everything moving along with a lighter touch.

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock playing the keytar | Credit: Marco Fedele

Tyson’s drumming was always supportive, never flashy for its own sake nor too complex to upset the groove. As before, Loueke got ample opportunities for West African-flavored solo work on his seven-string electric guitars, often through a liquid-sounding guitar synthesizer pedal, and Genus came up with an elaborate solo that gradually filled up repeating loops to a deliciously complex saturation point.

And there was Hancock, who is now 81 but you don’t have to believe it and he probably doesn’t either. He certainly plays like there is still a lot more music for him to explore, easily interacting and swinging with his younger colleagues on a Fazioli grand piano, a Korg electric keyboard, and a portable synth called a “keytar.”

Again, he opened with a loose, almost stream-of-consciousness medley that he calls “Overture,”  tunes from the now-distant past with snatches of “Textures,” “Butterfly,” “Chameleon,” and a hip Loueke solo turn on the MTV hit “Rockit,” followed by a ripping, extended jazz-funk workout on “Actual Proof.”  Herbie even brought out his 7-month-old grandson Drew, who looked bewildered by the whole spectacle as Grandpa played and “sang” “Happy Birthday” on the Korg through the vocoder to his wife in the audience. He’s still at the top of his game — and when are we going to see the new album he’s been promising for so long (it’s been 11 years since the last one)?

esperanza spalding
esperanza spalding | Credit: Samuel Prather

Bassist esperanza spalding — yes, now she seems to want her name spelled in lower case — amounted to a stellar opening act, taking the stage with just her formidable pianist/soprano saxophonist/accordionist Leo Genovese as support. Wielding an acoustic double bass while singing, spalding wove one twisting, unpredictable, sometimes eccentric melodic line after another around Genovese’s impressionistic piano work, doing things stemming from her recent albums. (Her latest one, Songwrights Apothecary Lab (Concord), a collection of 12 songs called “formwelas” that are designed to enhance one’s mood and well-being, was just released Friday Sept. 24). There was a Brazilian element in some of this — I thought I recognized Milton Nascimento’s “Vera Cruz” at one point — but spalding’s music has gone “beyond category,” speaking about relationships, body parts, mobile devices, dreams, etc. It was mesmerizing — at times.

With the Bowl season careening to a close, the management instituted proof of vaccination upon entry and universal masking policies just two days before the concert, per L.A. County health regulations. But as far as I could see, maybe more than half of the folks in the packed boxes were unmasked during the music portions of the evening, some of whom were chattering throughout the concert. I can only hope that the ushers checking for vaccinations did a thorough job.