For one night, the Holland Performing Arts Center was Herbie Hancock's jazz club. When that's the case, one needs to throw routine concert expectations out the window — and just sit back and enjoy the sounds.
The Grammy- and Oscar-winning keyboardist and composer, who turns 72 next month, took the stage with his quartet 15 minutes late on Friday night. Shunning an intermission, the group averaged about 20 minutes per musical "chart" in their main 105-minute set. About one-fourth of the packed house gave up on the extended standing ovation and left before Hancock and his mates returned to groove on two of his best-known hits: "Rockit" from the 1980s and "Chameleon" from the 1970s.
All the better for those who stayed. Jazz sets move at their own pace, even when the band isn't playing where the audience sits around tables and sips on favorite drinks. Cutting out early runs the risk of cheating oneself of a full experience, particularly when the headliner displays the label-defying virtuosity that has set Hancock apart throughout his six decades as a public performer.
Though he broke into the public eye in the 1960s with the Miles Davis Quintet, Hancock debuted on the concert stage playing classical music (specifically, the first movement of Mozart's Fifth Piano Concerto) at age 11 in his native Chicago. His compositions and jazz improvisations have long reflected that early training, a fact most evident Friday in Hancock's extended rendition of his 1965 standard "Maiden Voyage."
Playing only on his preferred Fazioli grand piano, Hancock mesmerized the audience with shimmering simulations of a ship navigating calm seas as well as the roiling waves and rumbling thunder of an ocean storm. His harmonic choices strongly evoked the great French Impressionist compositions of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, whom Hancock has acknowledged in the past as major influences on his musical style.
Most of the evening, however, showcased the inventiveness that marked Hancock's evolution from the "postbop" style he helped pioneer with Davis to the electronically driven fusion and funk of his 1970s and 1980s albums. He swiveled back and forth between piano and synthesizer on "Actual Proof," "Speak Like a Child" and "Cantaloupe Island," bent his voice through a vocorder for "Come Running to Me" and slung a Roland Ax Synth keytar over his shoulder for "Watermelon Man" and the two encores.
"Watermelon Man" actually was blended with a piece called "Seventeens," written by and featuring African-born guitarist Lionel Loueke. In introducing the combination, Hancock good-naturedly complained that Loueke's piece was so named because he wrote it with 17 beats to the measure, a very odd time signature. "We'll cheat," he promised the audience. "It'll be 16 beats — sometimes."
Indeed, one could occasionally hear the extra beat in the early part of the medley. But Hancock also challenged the crowd to listen to Loueke and ask themselves "if the guitar you've heard before is the guitar when he plays it." As the quartet concluded "Come Running to Me," everyone but Loueke left the stage. The guitarist continued by evoking popping sounds from his strings and amplifier, adding percussion with his thumb and tongue and singing in his native language, his voice processed by a vocorder of his own.
"Isn't that amazing?" Hancock said when he returned. "You thought I was joking."
Also memorable were well-polished licks from bassist James Genus, part of the "Saturday Night Live" band, and drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr., who effectively boosted the power of the music with relentless snare and cymbal work.