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- Posted on Jul 8th 2010 5:00PM by Tad Hendrickson
After Hancock received some negative press for his new album, 'The Imagine Project,' and his star-studded 70th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in June (mostly for emphasizing the new album's pop collaborations instead of those with the jazz greats who were actually on hand to jam), my expectations for this gig were understandably low. That said, I like working bands: I find all-star affairs to be predictable, and seldom does the chemistry match the level of talent onstage. So the thinking was that I would see Hancock on a regular night with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Lionel Loueke, keyboardist Brian McCullough, vocalist Greg Phillinganes, singer Kristina Train and electric bassist Tal Wilkenfield
The concert worked quite well on that level. The first highlight of the evening was a lengthy version of 'Watermelon Man.' Here he strapped on his Roland portable keyboard and walked amongst his band members, trading solos with Wilkenfield, McCullough and, most notably, Loueke, whose unique guitar-and-vocals style best epitomized the African feel of the original version of the song while bringing something wholly new and imaginative to it. Loueke also brought the best out of Hancock in the process. The song went on probably five minutes longer than it needed too, but the band was having fun, particularly Wilkenfield who shuffled and shimmied as she played.
The band eventually turned to Joni Mitchell's 'Court and Spark,' from the Grammy-winning 'River; The Joni Letters', bringing out Train to handle the vocals. She has a fine voice, and the band supported her well. The problem came in the extended midsection, which meandered along, seemingly lacking conviction or purpose. The band then moved on to a medly that Hancock said was needed to cover more ground. It worked OK, starting out with an unrecognized classical-leaning piece that morphed into synth-driven reading of ''Round Midnight' that eventually moved on to 'Cantaloupe Island.'
From there, the focus switched to material from the new album. Hancock made a short speech about peace through globalization and then the band moved straight into John Lennon's 'Imagine' to ram home the point. The band played the song effectively, adding a gospel feel to the proceedings that really worked. Things got a bit weird for a moment when Coliutta inserted a disco rhythm to bridge into Peter Gabriel's 'Don't Give Up' -- another pop song with a message, here sung by Greg Phillinganes. Next was Tinariwen's 'Timitant Tillay' and Bob Marley's 'Exodus,' combined as they were on the album, and the band captured the jump Tinariwen's tune particularly well. Things again went political with Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin'" combined with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (both on 'The Imagine Project'), and it raised the question of why Hancock kept insisting on pairing songs. Not every song should be a two-for-one, but the crowd was with him every step of the way.
The set hit the two-hour mark after a few more tunes from the new album, and the band showed no signs of flagging. Another long version of 'Watermelon Man' with plenty more solos all around finished out the night.
The band played well, and Hancock gave the fans what they wanted, unless they were hoping for the band's take on 'Rockit.' It was nice to see Hancock working with younger people, just as Miles Davis did with him in the '60s, and I'll look forward to seeing this band further down the line when the set list becomes more fluid.
To say that it has been Iyer's year is an understatement thanks the universal acclaim the pianist has received for his album 'Historicity.' He brought his band from that album (bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore) to Montreal. Even though Iyer's work toes the line between cerebral and beautiful, the long-running band stuck close to the music at times, managing all of the twist and turns that go into Iyer's compositions and arrangements.
Proving that he's no jazz purist, Iyer led the band through a great version of Michael Jackson's 'Human Nature,' stretching out on it without forgetting that indelible melody, which sent a ripple of recognition through the audience when the band settled into the piece after an abstract intro. The band also tackled Julius Hemphill's 'Dogon AD,' giving this blues-influenced tune a quiet almost elegiac reading. From there the trio cranked up the energy level with an aptly named workout called 'Cardio' that nicely balanced the quieter moments that put this late set in danger of getting a little too quiet. Two other standouts from the night were Andrew Hill's 'Smoke Stack' and 'Somewhere,' from ' West Side Story,' both found on Historicity.
The night proved to be an excellent one for Iyer. The band probably didn't play its best set ever, but the mix of source material styles, the dynamic range to the playing, and the excellent pacing to the set was such that it was hard to find fault. The band went from strength to strength and the crowd ate it up, just as they should have.
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