Herbie Hancock Joins Forces With Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil

Richard S. Ginell on October 16, 2018
Herbie Hancock | Credit: Bonnie Perkinson

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s LA Fest has been touching as many stylistic bases as it can in a strenuous effort to integrate the orchestra with nonclassical idioms. Now and then, fusions of apples and oranges into crossbred fruits result in something exciting and important. Other times — I dare say, most of the time — I would much rather partake of each idiom separately. And the orchestral component of these fusions is usually the more expendable one.

With that said, let’s turn to Saturday night’s meeting at Walt Disney Concert Hall of Gustavo Dudamel and company with Herbie Hancock — the LA Phil’s Creative Chair for Jazz and without exaggeration, a true giant in anyone’s jazz pantheon. They’ve met before — most notably in a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a gala benefit back in 2011. That was Hancock’s venture onto Dudamel’s turf, and it came off rather well, with elastic freedom and irreverence.

Gustavo Dudamel with Herbie Hancock and the LA Phil in 2011 | Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

This time, though, the LA Phil came a-knocking at Hancock’s door, massively elaborating upon three signature Hancock tunes. This was a more problematic meeting place, mainly on acoustical grounds. But it was still fun to hear.

First, Dudamel and the Phil set the table before intermission with a reprise of one of their signature orchestral pieces that just happens to have a jazz component, John Adams’s City Noir. This team gave the world premiere of this edgy, exuberant, shadowy impression of post-World War II Los Angeles in 2009 during Dudamel’s inaugural concert as music director. A DVD was issued soon thereafter — and viewing it today, you can see how the makeup of the orchestra has changed, and also how Dudamel himself has changed, in nine years. He’s much less physically hyper now; he’s learned to get better results with less motion. And their performance of City Noir has sharpened, roaring with assured power through Adams’s labyrinth of textures, with period touches like the jazzy groove on trap drums in Part One and a languid trumpet solo that sounded like Billy Butterfield on a Sinatra record from around 1950.

Of the many incarnations of Herbie Hancock over his long career, the one who turned up Saturday was the plugged-in visionary revisiting his electric music from a single decade — from 1973 (when his jazz-funk Head Hunters band debuted) to 1983 (the year of his radical techno hit, “Rockit”). It was a crowded stage, with a full orchestra (with Alex Acuna, no less, on congas way in the back), Hancock’s grand piano and electric keyboard, Vinnie Colaiuta’s trap drums, James Genus’s electric bass, and Terrace Martin’s alto sax and synth arsenal jostling for precious physical and sonic space.

Herbie Hancock in 1976 | Credit: Sony Music Archives

The first of the three LA Phil collaborations, “Chameleon,” found the Phil sawing away at a very busy arrangement that was smudged by the collision of a large orchestra and an amplified band with a loud drum kit. The lovely “Butterfly” fared better, with an orchestral chart that sometimes mimicked the string synthesizer parts on the original recording and a distinguished surprise guest, Marcus Miller, brought in to replicate Bennie Maupin’s menacing bass clarinet underpinning. On a long workout on “Rockit,” the record’s original scratchmaster Grand Mixer DXT (formerly D.ST) manipulated his turntables with flair, and after fiddling with the controls, Hancock issued a cogent solo on his portable guitar-like Roland Ax synth. There was even some humor when a gong punctuated parts of the orchestral chart.

Gustavo Dudamel with Herbie Hancock and the LA Phil in 2011 | Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

The Philharmonic then packed up and left, leaving the Hancock quartet onstage to jam for over an hour on material from that electric decade, including some deep catalogue items like the haunting “Textures” from the Mr. Hands album and Hancock’s vocoder showcase “Come Running to Me” from the Sunlight album. The set had an ad hoc feeling at times, but it allowed more space to hear Colaiuta’s often brilliantly complex, funky drumming and Hancock burrowing ever more deeply on grand piano into his creations from four decades back. As much fun as it was to see Herbie, 78, and Gustavo, 37, joyously communing across the generations earlier, I frankly didn’t miss the orchestra at all during the quartet set.