Good story, right? It tells us something useful about acceptance, and resourcefulness, and imagination, and how tapping into all three of those things at once can help us answer the relentless demands of an eternal now. For years, Hancock has repeated the anecdote as a lens through which to understand the improvisational energies that animate his whole deal — he opened (and closed) his 2014 memoir, “Possibilities,” with it. But there’s another passage in the book that might get even closer to the breadth of his essence. “Improvising is like opening a wonderful box where everything you take out is always new,” Hancock writes. “You’ll never get bored, because what that box contains is different every single time.”
So here’s something that no single person should be allowed to decide or declare, but it’s probably true: Herbie Hancock is today’s greatest living jazz artist. He’s certainly among the greatest to ever do it. And if it feels weird putting him all the way up there with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it’s probably because Hancock has spent so much of his life demystifying himself. He is not a riddle. He is not a myth. He’s a guy emptying a box.
What’s in there, anyway? At Hancock’s Tuesday night concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the contents included electric joy, muted grief, full-hearted optimism, techno-spiritual loneliness, mounting eco-anxiety, a handful of profoundly funky rhythms, another handful of impossibly funkier rhythms, and, by design, lots more. Joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, bassist James Genus and drummer Jaylan Petinaud, Hancock spent the night pivoting between ideas and keyboards. At his synth, he billowed melody as if it were an aura, or a perfume, or a precipitation system. Clutching a keytar, he sketched out glassy grooves in squeaks and smears. And behind the piano, Hancock’s signature light-on-water phrases felt both strong and effervescent, like diamonds disappearing into time.
The pleasant and the sublime didn’t feel mutually exclusive here, either. But the strange and the brash were definitely in the mix. Petinaud’s drumming was heavy on the backbeat, with cymbals that refused to stop hissing and a snare sound that made time feel as if it were bursting with his every swat. Blanchard played his trumpet through dizzying, layered effects. Genus mapped out the music’s bottom in clotted notes that were easier to feel than hear. Yes, the hits got played (“Chameleon,” “Actual Proof”), but this wasn’t an orderly retrospective concert from a genteel jazz hero. This was something louder, thicker, heavier, more elastic, more propulsive, more exciting.
The gravity in the room felt especially dense during “Footprints” — famously composed by Hancock’s closest friend and collaborator, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who died in March — with Petinaud interpreting the song’s title as something that could be stomped across your brain. Yet, his playing somehow made room for tenderness, and when Blanchard blew a descending flutter of notes during the song’s indelible refrain, Hancock trailed close behind with a twinkling right hand. How much metaphor are you willing to allow into that gesture? Hancock sounded like he was following a bandmate deeper into the music while simultaneously following his best friend toward the big unknowable — conjuring something between right now and forever.
The set’s other staggering moment came during the finale of “Come Running to Me,” a bright spot from Hancock’s vocoder-laden 1978 album “Sunlight.” With his band having gone silent, Hancock sang into a special microphone, steady and mantra-like — “I’m not happy without you” — funneling his voice through the cold synthesizer chords taking shape beneath his fingers. Repeating the words while changing the notes communicated an unambiguous sadness: There are many ways to feel alone. But there was an entirely different kind of sorrow to be felt in the sound itself, a queasy sort of time-sickness that comes when listening to yesterday’s technology evoke a future that isn’t quite going as planned.
And it isn’t. Though Hancock spent most of his evening showing how optimism can work as both a mood and a mode, he leaked a rare flash of anxiety when first introducing Petinaud, the band’s youngest member, still only in his 20s. Proudly boasting that we’d be listening to this young drummer for decades to come, Hancock then wondered whether the planet would remain habitable for that long. Suddenly, he was confessing his regret over one generation passing this damaged planet down to the next. “We should be ashamed of ourselves,” he said. “I am.”
He shouldn’t regret having said it out loud, though. Without fear, our optimism is just a pretty little wish against oblivion — and if anything, Hancock’s unexpected blurt gave weight to a more upbeat declaration he made later in the set: “Music is going to save us.” He didn’t say how, but if we can’t trust this man’s intuition, what is there to trust?