Under the auspices of Carolina Performing Arts, Herbie Hancock performed in UNC’s Memorial Hall (which, by the way, has been beautifully renovated since my last visit). Having known him since about 1970, I wondered how I would review his performance and almost didn’t take the assignment because of what I thought might be a conflict of interest. But as I have always found when attending a Hancock performance, he never performs his songs the same way, so the experience was as new for me as everybody else. Sometimes the basic theme is more recognizable than at other times, but Herbie, being true to his jazz roots, seeks to plumb the depths of the immediate moment. He is not so interested in what he played before or even recorded before – the recorded melody and arrangement which might be so memorable to his fan base merely provides the structure around which to create a new story. I know this from personal experience.

Back in Philadelphia during the early seventies, Herbie’s sextet was appearing at a supper club called “Sonny Driver’s First Nighter.” As a member of Al Grey’s quartet who played the club weekly, I had backstage access and overheard the owner complain to Herbie after the first set that the audience wasn’t enjoying the esoteric style of music he was offering; he told him to play something recognizable like “Maiden Voyage.” Things became a little heated for a moment but while it was evident that Herbie was annoyed, he agreed to follow the man’s orders because, after all, the man was Sonny Driver. The next set started off with “Maiden Voyage” and continued through his major hits of the day, and while he satisfied the owner’s request, every song was re-arranged, in different keys and with chord substitutions. I was blown away because it took me a moment to recognize the songs myself, and there were five other musicians participating with him who probably had no better idea of what he was going to do than I did. Yet they created a seemingly flawless performance.

In Chapel Hill, I was reminded of that experience as I listened to the band’s performance. Though his arrangements and solos were extraordinary, as expected, the most amazing part of his music is the complexity of rhythm that provides the driving subtext. One thing is certain about every one of his groups that I have experienced over the years: every member, no matter their musical, instrumental, or technical facility, possessed an almost uncanny affinity for rhythms. His music abounds with rhythmic phrasings and lengthy passages that seem to “morph” into something unfathomable that sometimes loses the listener until suddenly it re-appears and becomes familiar again. This is not an accidental foray into the unknown but more a testimony to the extraordinary sophistication of his Art.

As a former member of jazz icon Miles Davis’ band, Herbie learned from the master that you can’t produce Art with musicians who are not dedicated to the full appreciation of music as an art form. Miles had little patience with mediocrity and scoured the country in search of musicians of this caliber, and Herbie, the good student, does likewise. As he jokingly stated during the performance, he has had “the ‘misfortune’ of playing with some of the best musicians in the world.” Like Miles’ performances, Herbie’s music is an amalgam of the group’s collective consciousness. Unlike jazz bands like Ellington and Dorsey in which musicians play arrangements that allow for periodic solo performances, Herbie’s musicians are not reading music, nor is their performance simply a function of memorization, because Herbie does not write every note that they play.

I once asked trumpeter Eddie Henderson, a former Hancock band member, how the horn section of the sextet knew exactly when to come in, playing such extraordinarily complex un-scripted chordal harmonies that night at Sonny Driver’s, and his response was that “it just happened” and he couldn’t explain it. However, he offered this bit of insight, telling me that Herbie spent a lot of time before rehearsing the music, explaining the story behind each composition. In other words, there was purpose and objective behind the music that each musician had to comprehend in order to make any worthwhile improvisatory contribution. They were telling THE story! The process is very much like a discussion between learned professors, all familiar with the subject-matter, context, and objective, who each have a valuable insight to offer and who simultaneously nod their heads in affirmation or disagreement with what the speaker is saying. And when the next person speaks, expressing the breadth of his experience, he’s adding to the body of knowledge. This kind of autonomy among musicians unfamiliar with the craft usually results in anarchy, or what is referred to as a “free jam session.”

The musicians who made up the band were drummer Trevor Lawrence, whom Herbie identified as a “techie” like himself. He credited Lawrence with the ability easily to perform odd rhythms and difficult long rhythmic passages that amazed even him. The electric bassist was James Genus, whose blazing fast lines seemed almost impossible to play, especially since he was only using two fingers to pluck the strings. Lionel Loueke, from Benin, Africa, played electric guitar; he also appeared to be technically savvy. To demonstrate the amazing facility and depth required, the musicians were given solo opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and, to my mind, they secured their place among the best in the world.

The program, which was announced from the stage, consisted of eight compositions, all in the 12 – 20 minute range. “Actual Proof” began with the familiar opening, morphed into a new dimension with wonderful solo flights, and returned with its familiar ending.

“Watermelon Man,” combined with a composition of Lionel Loueke named “Seventeens,” employing seventeen beat phrases. Herbie said the rhythms were ridiculous and drew us all in with his admission that even he had to cheat on occasion by playing sixteen beats. The ruse was completed when he challenged the audience to see if they could tell when he wasn’t playing seventeen beats, which, of course, was impossible. However, it was a fun exercise that kept everybody interested.

“Running to Me,” referencing again his technologic savvy, reprised the old “vocorder” composition which he said first introduced the effect to the marketplace; it was soon picked up by groups like Earth Wind and Fire. The technology involves an attachment that used to be held in your mouth that allowed the performer to cause melodic notes played on an instrument to mimic the words that they mouthed, altering the sound of the voice. Whether it was a guitar or a piano, the computerized sounds available were endless.

There followed a solo performance by Loueke in which he electronically layered melodic, rhythmic guitar, and vocal sounds that at times were extremely dense, at other times playful, as he sang in the African “click” language, but at all times rhythmic.

Herbie returned to the stage and announced that his solo would be performed on the brand new Fazoli nine-foot grand piano, adding that he had no idea what he would play, but the performances somehow ended up as musings on “Maiden Voyage.” You could tell when he sat down that a few moments were needed for him to decide what he would play. What he produced was the opposite of what had gone before. He began creating a slow, introspectively-paced composition with moments of thoughtful quietude, using harmonies that were angular but also sensitive and sweet. There was no recognizable melody and it seemed more an exercise of free association, except for the occasional melodic reference to “Maiden Voyage” without its familiar rhythmic pulse. For some in the audience, it brought tears.

This was followed by another esoteric composition by the whole group that, as mentioned earlier, would have appeared to many unfamiliar with Herbie’s compositions as random musings, save for the chord changes and the way they all hit the rhythmic breaks in perfect unison.

“Rockit” was a nod to the young students in the audience who had competed for tickets in a break-dance competition outside the theater, which lent a festive atmosphere to the event, a half hour before curtain time. As a result, the audience age ranged from eighty years old on the high side to, perhaps, sixteen-year-old skate boarders, another demonstration of Herbie’s iconic influence.

The encore was “Chameleon,” which seemed to complete the circle and brought the evening to a pleasant and satisfying close.

Herbie Hancock has been named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and is promoting an International Jazz Day to be held April 30th of every year.