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Feature

A modern jazz virtuoso goes back to basics


The watermelon man returns with an album
set in contrasting moods


Born in 1941, Herbie Hancock might easily be the youngest jazz veteran of today. It is difficult to find a single phrase that describes him best. Virtuoso solo pianist? Backbone of many great small groups? Pioneer of post-bop experimentation in fusion with rock or ethnic music? Composer of memorable jazz standards? Hancock is all these and more.

Hancock was one of two or three pianists who worked with Miles Davis in the '60s, when Davis was evolving jazz-rock fusion. By this time, he had already earned great fame for his Watermelon man and Cantaloupe island, hard bop recordings which have become classics. Since then he has dabbled in jazz-rock and even made occasional forays into pure rock for the commercial success it affords. He has used electric pianos, digital keyboards and other staples of rock. He has worked with West African musicians; he has plunged into the bossa nova of the Brazilian legend Antonio Carlos Jobim. He has produced quiet, reflective piano music with long improvisations in a duo with Chick Corea (another Davis jazz-rock alumnus). And he has looked back at Davis's pre-fusion days in A tribute to Miles with his colleagues in Davis' fusion period, Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxes), Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums), recreating in hard bop style the cool music that Davis experimented with before fusion.

Plainly, a musician with an eclectic jazz signature. Unlike the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has devoted much of his life to reinterpreting the original jazz styles of Dixieland and big-band swing, Hancock hasn't till now made a point of going back to the roots of jazz. As a prolific composer, his performing has naturally relied heavily on his own work, together with that of his fellow-musicians, of other contemporary jazz composers or of those who just preceded him. Now's the time, however, to borrow the title of one of Charlie Parker's favourite tunes (one that, incidentally, Hancock picked out to pay tribute to Parker). This is the birth centenary year of one of the greatest sources for jazz to dip into.

George Gershwin hadn't reached the age of 40 when he died. But in his short life he was one of the forces that shaped modern American music, much of it grounded in the musical theatre. Most of the work in this genre was and still is fair game for jazz musicians to absorb and reinterpret in their discipline, but Gershwin particularly was a fertile source.

In the new album Gershwin's World, Hancock chooses some ten Gershwin compositions and adds a few more by jazz pioneers to come up with what is for him an unusual body of work, going back to the roots.

Hancock doesn't, unlike Marsalis, recreate early jazz styles. He interprets the 14 numbers on this album in his own way, eclectically but always in the various modern jazz idioms that his past work has used. Throughout, one feels his guiding hand. It's his piano that dominates the proceedings. Every other musician is chosen for the tones, colours, and effects he or she adds to the piano, often in short solos setting up ``colour contrasts''.

There are solo piano pieces. Blueberry rhyme (by James P Johnson) had to be one: Johnson was one of the pioneers of ``stride'' piano, a solo style that relies heavily on hard use of the left hand to set up the beat while tickling out the melody - often staggered away from the beat - with the right hand. On this number, unusually, Hancock sticks closely to the stride style. Everywhere on this album he rather obviously chooses to stagger the melody away from the beat in the manner of ragtime and swing jazz. This ``syncopation'' became less perceptible after the advent of be-bop, which was so fast-paced that it became difficult to shift the melody away from the beat, but is often discernible in the work of those jazz pianists whose output is largely either solo or in trios (with bass and drums). Another solo number is the closing piece, Embraceable you, improvised so extensively that the original Gershwin melody is hard to detect.

Syncopation aside, this is certainly modern jazz piano set in contrasting moods and backgrounds. We have vocal contributions from rock singers. Joni Mitchell on The man I love and Summertime sounds like she could have walked into a jazz orchestra as if to the manner born, and Stevie Wonder sings W.C. Handy's classic St. Louis blues and accompanies himself on the harmonica like one of the greats of blues. Cottontail is another centenary tribute, this one to Duke Ellington, composer, pianist and bandleader. It starts off with an intro that could almost be a take-off on the Duke, but in keeping with Hancock's oeuvre stretches out into a long piano trio section. Ellington's own classic version had a tenor saxophone solo by Ben Webster, an obvious inspiration for a long tenor sax solo here. For most of this album, however, saxes (tenor, alto, soprano), trumpet, Latin percussion and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - the last-named adding a classical touch to Lullaby and Concerto in G, 2nd movement (by Maurice Ravel) - play cameo roles against a Hancock going to town on his piano. As he varies pace, goes suddenly quiet or loud, and changes rhythm, you too can go to town on this cassette.

Jazzebel


Herbie Hancock: Gershwin's World
Polygram India
Rs 100








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