Herbie Hancock Quartet

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Herbie Hancock Quartet:

Herbie Hancock (piano)
Lionel Loueke (guitar)
Dave Carpenter (bass)
Richie Barshay (drums)


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 17 May, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

At 65, Herbie Hancock could be forgiven for resting on his laurels. As the composer of half-a-dozen blue-chip repertory standards, a founding father of an entire genre of jazz electronica, and a platinum-selling crossover star to boot, he could enjoy an easy retirement of compilation CDs and occasional gigs for the nostalgia crowd. Instead, a three-date residency at the Barbican shows that his sense of adventure is as strong as ever, and this first concert saw the London debut of his exciting new touring quartet.

Hancock is a self-confessed hardware geek, and his love of new technology is much in evidence. Though essentially an acoustic quartet, the musicians are discreetly surrounded by a mission control of funky digital kit. In a pre-concert interview, Hancock spoke of wanting to create “a new sonic world”, and the performance opened with looped African chant projected in surround-sound around the auditorium, Stockhausen-style, to which Beninoise guitarist Lionel Loueke adds his own plaintive vocal.

Though young, the new band is composed of distinctive musical personalities. Loueke coaxes a range of vocal and percussive sounds from his instrument with the aid of a battery of foot pedals; he is an improviser of impressive emotional directness and stylistic range, and his solo spot towards the end of the evening suggests a crossover star in the making. Drummer Richie Barshay is fresh out of college and looks barely old enough to shave, but lays down incisive grooves like a master, and uses a kit augmented with tabla and electronics with subtlety and restraint. The whole edifice rests on Dave Carpenter’s rock-solid bass lines, played both on upright and electric six-string.

Most important is the energising effect the band has on Hancock, who responds with solos of monumental drive. It is a joy to see him racing with Loueke in ‘Sonrisa’ (“A tune I wrote … probably before these guys were born”); elsewhere the two men blend seamlessly, responding with evident pleasure to one another’s playing. Most of the 150-minute set is new material by Loueke and Barshay, providing fresh landscapes to explore. Loueke’s ‘Virgin Forest’ has a township feel, with the guitarist’s djembe-ish picking joined by Hancock’s sampled percussion; in Barshay’s ‘Con Agua’ Herbie improvises with vocal samples, an effect that sounds like the Swingle Singers suffering a collective hallucination. None of this digital wizardry feels superfluous; rather, it is as though the walls are falling away to reveal strange new horizons. The encore, appropriately enough, is a gorgeous, minimalist ‘Maiden Voyage’, swathed in William Orbit strings, as Herbie Hancock once more sets sail for the sun.

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