Primary tabs

The Ageless Herbie Hancock Launches LA Phil’s Power to the People! Festival

March 9, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

In stream-of-consciousness succession, the Los Angeles Philharmonic launched yet another provocative election-year festival Thursday night, March 5. After exploring what happens when a democracy crumbles in its Weimar Republic festival, then celebrating the iconoclastic, patriotic, radical-thinking American composer Charles Ives, the LA Phil’s next move was Power to the People! — opening up the house to a cornucopia of musical idioms with a political edge.

Apparently this is Gustavo Dudamel’s vision, trying to unite all forms of music under the LA Phil’s ever-expanding umbrella — which may pay off in the long run if it attracts audiences to Walt Disney Concert Hall who are no longer exposed to so-called classical music in the schools or the culture at large. Whether these cross-pollinations produce great music — that’s another issue.

Dudamel has an ever-youthful co-conspirator in the Phil’s Creative Chair for Jazz Herbie Hancock — who turns 80 next month — and they collaborated again to kick off the festival. Gustavo first led the Phil in three recent works by African-American composers, then combined forces with Herbie’s current jazz quintet in two politically-charged numbers of his from about 50 years ago, and finally left the stage to the jazzers to round out the night.

Jessie Montgomery’s Banner, originally recorded with just a string orchestra, was heard here with six winds, French horn, trumpet, and percussion added to the strings. The piece plays with threads from “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” turning out a joyful, at times rambunctious mélange of neoclassical, minimalist, and astringent elements. In another era, Montgomery might have caught flak from the police for toying with the “sacred” National Anthem — as did Stravinsky in Boston when he merely dared to write a slightly reharmonized version — but we now live in more tolerant times, hard as it may be to believe.

The title of Courtney Bryan’s White Gleam of Our Bright Star also drew upon “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — the words this time. With eerie sustained textures coming in waves, this pleasant piece gradually builds to a grand statement before coming to a serene close, always at slow tempos.

Hancock’s friend, colleague, and fellow jazz giant Wayne Shorter stretched his orchestral muscles with Aurora, a piece that he says he started when he was 19 but only got around to finishing 10 years ago for Renée Fleming. Like just about every Shorter concert piece that I’ve heard, Aurora is a thickly orchestrated vertical expansion of the way he writes for his jazz combos, this time densely backing an optimistic text from Maya Angelou’s The Rock Cries Out to Us Today. Though amplified, singer Mikaela Bennett seemed uncomfortable with the vocal line when reaching high.

Hancock’s rumbling, electric-jazz-funk Ostinato: Suite for Angela (Angela being activist Angela Davis, who was in the audience) was one of the best things to come out of his great experimental Mwandishi sextet of the early-1970s. Here, it was expanded into a real suite for Angela, with dreamy orchestrated opening and closing segments flanking the insistently repeated tune now tossed from section to section of the orchestra. Now and then, Davis’s recorded voice could be heard booming over the P.A. system, and Alex Acuna could be seen unobtrusively supplying percussion in back of the Phil.

The more relaxed I Have A Dream, written four months before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder but not recorded by Hancock until 1969 (there is a fascinating earlier rehearsal outtake with the Miles Davis Quintet), seemed even better suited to a full orchestration, with the winds and brasses suavely multiplying Hancock’s distinctive harmonies. Hancock’s solos on a Fazioli grand piano harkened back to the way he played in 1969, with Lionel Loueke getting in some liquid licks on guitar synthesizer.

After issuing the invitation “Let’s visit the universe!” — Hancock launched a wild, intergalactic display of electronic sound before diving into a magnificent pair of lengthy workouts with the band, touching briefly upon “Butterfly,” “Textures,” and “Chameleon” as they went. With Vinnie Colaiuta’s titanic underpinning on drums, James Genus on electric bass, Terrace Martin on alto sax and three synths — and time out for a Loueke West-African interlude on guitar and vocals — the set found Hancock at the top of his pianistic game, minimizing intellectual abstractions, reacting to the grooves of his first-class band, strutting out front on a portable synth at times. We should all have such a thoroughly contemporary outlook at 80.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.