The 2019 Wellington Jazz Festival opened on Wednesday night with its most anticipated act, delivering an undeniable highlight with its very first slot. Herbie Hancock is one of the biggest names the festival has ever netted or even possibly could have, and his set easily delivered on the anticipation hanging around his name.
With tickets having sold out in less than a day, the atmosphere was electric in the relatively intimate Michael Fowler Centre. The festival was formally opened with a karakia and a speech from a spokesperson, before the star of the night emerged on stage with his three other band members - drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist James Genus, and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke. They opened with the spacey synth atmospheres and building groove of Overture, with Herbie seated to the far left, swivelling on his stool to move between his grand piano and his keyboard synthesizer - the sounds of the two roughly different stages of his career.
Of course, it needn’t be said that the band were of the high calibre expected. They played beautifully off one another, and the individual drum, bass and guitar solos were of course technically brilliant. The first time Herbie got up from his keys to talk to us with a hand-held microphone, he mentioned how honoured he was to play with musicians of this level, and you could tell they felt the same towards him - thirty years his junior, guitarist Loueke most likely grew up learning to play Hancock standards like Cantaloupe Island and Watermelon Man. Herbie then introduced the early-70’s classic Actual Proof.
The 79-year-old was in good spirits throughout, smiling and making sure to wave at every section of the seated audience, and keeping up the energy for well over two hours. Cheers rang out when, halfway through Secret Sauce, he left his seat to strap on his white keytar and join Loueke at the front of the stage. The keytar was great fun to watch, offering the audience prime views of his fingerwork, but the set’s greatest moments for me were his acoustic piano solos. It was simply a delight to watch and hear him play, and it looked and sounded like he was putting as much passion into his delivery as ever. Indeed some fans may have been disappointed that the set leant so heavily on the electronic fusion aspect of the band and of his career, as the quieter moments where the acoustic piano cut through were really the highlights.
That said, the use of technology and funk influences is integral to Herbie’s legacy, and the band played into this, bassist James Genus delivering a loop-pedal solo and electric guitarist Loueke providing occasional vocals run through some pedal to produce the sound of a many-voiced harmonised choir. Herbie himself put on a microphone headset to sing vocoder vocals on Come Running To Me, a mellow, atmospheric slow-burning highlight that really allowed the group to shine through with more subtlety than on most of the full-on other pieces.
The band closed with a heavier, muscular version of the classic Cantaloupe Island, one of Herbie’s most recognisable piano compositions, and were answered with a standing ovation. The applause was rewarded with an encore - the riff to the jazz-funk classic Chameleon started playing off-stage, before the band members returned, and finally, Herbie re-emerged playing his keytar. The track was stretched out into a long jam, the keytar trading solos with the guitar, though for some reason I found it to be one of the lesser pieces of the night, coming across slightly plain.
Nevertheless, the set was well-deserving of its second standing ovation. It was a delight just to watch and hear the piano being played by such an iconic living piece of jazz history, and the fact that the set was also musically rewarding was almost a bonus, albeit a significant one. What a way to open a jazz festival!