Last Friday at the Carolina Theater in Durham, the Herbie Hancock Quartet played the five shortest half-hour-long pieces I've ever heard. They were also among the most unfathomable. Objectively, this is what happened: They played five pieces, each one long and wide-ranging but almost completely lacking in the usual signposts. Each was loosely based on one or two jazz compositions, but they rarely played more than a fragment of it (of the familiar ones, at least). Yet it was lucid and riveting, and fresh from beginning to end.
It's easier to say what they didn't do. They didn't play heads, at least not usually--the one exception I remember was their "St. Louis Blues," and one of the reasons they played it, I think, was to present their twisted version of the melody. There were no repeated chord changes for improvised solos. There were piano and horn solos backed by the rhythm section, but generally the line between one solo and the next was blurred, as was the line between soloist and accompanist. The net effect was to decompartmentalize the performance. Considering how thoroughly compartmentalized almost every form of music we're likely to encounter is, this is a pretty radical thing to do.
The Hancock quartet's basic mode of playing is freely shifting and conversational. It's a mode that is deeply indebted to the 1960s edition of the Miles Davis Quintet, with Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. Besides Hancock, the most explicit connection between the two bands is the high-strung but finely articulated energy of Terry Lynn Carrington's drumming. In terms of anchoring a groove and at the same time really getting around on the bass, they have a lot in common. The new band feels different, though--more open, more patient and less brash. It is for all these reasons, plus (to quote J.S. Bach) that they are standing on the shoulders of giants, that the new rhythm section can get further from traditional jazz form, and into a purer kind of improvisation that the old one ever managed. Gary Thomas has a velvety sound on tenor that works well when he is acting as foil to Hancock, playing in a more conversational mode, but he can make it edgier when the band is going full bore, and that kind of energy is called for.
All of the pieces had a suite-like feeling, but the loosely linked improvisations on Hancock's mid-'60s tune "Dolphin Dance" is the only one I remember Hancock giving that label to. The only trace of its serene melody were fragments that surfaced from time to time, as if we were hearing how the tune aged instead of just hearing the tune. There was a cinematic poignance to it for me, but that says far more about my state of mind than about Hancock's intentions. They disassembled another classic from the same era, Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," dwelling only briefly on its signature bass vamp, which is normally repeated throughout, mantra-like, but coming to rest in the end by rocking back and forth between the two chords that are supposed to be the tune's most fleeting and dynamic element. Other pleasures, spread throughout the evening: watching Carrington and bassist Scott Colley milk a groove, or watching them shift gears, ratcheting up the intensity. The sound Hancock got from the piano was never less than beautiful, whether he was playing concise, ringing patterns that locked with a groove, or in a more reflective, stream-of-consciousness mode. This does bring up one of my few gripes about the evening, though--the buzz in the sound system, which marred much of the solo piano playing. What possible excuse can there be for something like that when people are paying $35 each to hear a pianist of the caliber of Herbie Hancock?
This band's incredible range of moods, textures and grooves belies a remarkable single-mindedness. Yes, there was funk, there was rock, there was even a bit of a Debussy piano prelude, I think, but all of it was filtered through a jazz sensibility that values improvisation and spontaneity above all else. It may be paradoxical, given Hancock's musical split personality, but there were times when he seemed to lead the band so deeply into the heart of jazz that they came out the other side. Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but I think this is what Duke Ellington meant by his highest compliment--"beyond category." Whatever it is, I hope it's contagious. --Robert Zimmerman