Review: Herbie Hancock, Riverside Theatre (WA)

A little less flash would have improved this concert from the Grammy-winning jazz pianist.
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Herbie Hancock. Photo: Douglas Kirkland.

Herbie Hancock’s concert in Perth on 31 May 2019 kicked off his tour of Australia and New Zealand, and it’s part of the music icon’s world tour that will finish in Belgium in November – with a total of 26 concerts in six months!

Yes, at 78 years of age, Herbie Hancock is still a very much alive and a wonderfully versatile jazz musician – but did the concert deliver the exhilaration of the past, or was the resounding applause more for nostalgia and respect? It could well have been for relief at the end of a segment, because the music was excessively loud!

When Hancock announced his first number, Actual Truth (from his Headhunters days), he qualified it by saying it was a composition from ‘a long time ago, when we were young’, but added with mischievous humour, ‘we’re still young’, as he introduced his supporting musicians.

Multi-talented Lionel Louke, age 46, was not only a superb guitar player but a master of the digital whammy pedal. He tapped out whipbird sounds, squeals and whistles to complement Hancock’s interception on his Korg Kronos keyboard. When the overbearing drums from Vinnie Colaiuta allowed, it was also a joy to hear Louke’s glottal interpretation of the Xhosa language of South Africa. The clicking vocals, coupled with Hancock’s deep, sonorous singing, was a sensational, innovative combination, but disappointingly, the sound level was again overbearing.

Thankfully, it was possible to hear James Genus’ seductive bass guitar when he had an occasional solo but when it came to Watermelon Man, one of Hancock’s most famous compositions, Hancock’s indulgent keytar drowned it out.

As one of the audience members commented, in a flush of adoration, ‘It’s 30 years since I last saw him and he’s still wonderful.’ But that adoration was borne out of Hancock’s original collaboration with Miles Davis and other great musicians and his sensitivity to the acoustic piano and the melodic sounds it delivered. That won him an Academy Award for the original haunting soundtrack of Round Midnight, 14 Grammy Awards including Album of the Year for River: The Joni Letters, six honorary doctorates and countless other accolades. Yet, on this evening, on the rare occasions when Hancock actually played the grand piano, light and shade were sacrificed for thumping arpeggios battling to be heard over Colaiuta who seemed to have centre stage.

The disciples in the audience, however, knew what was in store. They clapped before he even came on stage. They cheered every time he hit a first note and those that missed out on a ticket almost cried at the box office.

At one stage Hancock almost strangled himself trying to put connection chords into his ears to play his keytar, and joked that they were not hearing aids. I wondered if he was aware of the sound discordance.

Cantaloupe Island brought a brief moment of calm but, as with Watermelon Man, the melody was so twisted and exaggerated by the electronics that it was really unforgivable. It brought to mind the cliché about men playing with their toys as Hancock seemed more intent on the keyboard rather than the piano, and even played his encore on the keytar.

Hancock has often talked of breaking the mould and welcoming challenges, and it was clear to see that that was what he was attempting with this concert but it would have benefited from a little temperance rather than such full-blown, fluoro rock effects. A few sacred minutes of beautiful cover music might have helped to lessen the sudden transitions that were not appreciated by all.

Hancock, who is still undoubtedly a maestro, made this comment about jazz in earlier days:

‘It’s easy to get sidetracked with technology, and that is the danger, but ultimately you have to see what works with the music and what doesn’t. In a lot of cases, less is more. In most cases, less is more.’

3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆

Herbie Hancock
Presented by Live Nation
31 May 2019
Riverside Theatre, Perth

Further tour dates here

Barbara Booth
About the Author
Barbara Booth has been a Freelance Journalist for 27 years, published nationally in newspapers and magazines including The Age, The Canberra Times, The West Australian, Qantas Club magazine, Home Beautiful, Paspaley magazine, Limelight magazine and 50 Something. She is based in Perth.