Best of Fall #2: Jazz legend Herbie Hancock at Massey Hall
Herbie Hancock’s jazz experiments—fusion, folk, hip hop, disco—earned him as many detractors as fans. Backed by an orchestra and performing standards, he’s no less a provocateur
There’s a reason folkies yelled “Judas” when Dylan went electric. When your favourite artist—the person whose tastes and values and soul seemed so perfectly aligned with your own—takes a musical left turn, it’s a repudiation of everything you had in common.
Herbie Hancock has been a jazz legend long enough to have spurned his hard-core fans a dozen times. The piano prodigy had his first hit, the bluesy “Watermelon Man,” at age 22, in 1962. The next year he became a member of Miles Davis’s legendary second quintet. When Hancock formed the jazz fusion band Headhunters a decade later, jazz purists were appalled, accusing him of pandering to popular taste. Copping funk rhythms from Sly Stone and James Brown, Hancock soloed on an array of electric synthesizers, creating a record that’s still one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Hancock’s discography zigs and zags from experimental synth to Joni Mitchell covers and then back to conventional jazz. He’s had ambitious misses (“jazz” and “disco” are two words that should never appear on the same album sleeve), but his hits, like the 1983 proto–hip hop single “Rockit,” have been hugely influential, helping to drag some of those aggrieved fans into an appreciation of new sounds.
When Hancock played Massey Hall in 2001, he left with a Grammy-winning live album. This time he’s playing “Rhapsody in Blue” with orchestral accompaniment before launching into a solo set. Any other 71-year-old who performed this set would be accused of slowing down. For Hancock, it’s just a return to tradition before his next wild departure.