At 77, Hancock hasn't lost a step.

herbie hancock photo by patrick ainsworth for my spilt milk
Herbie Hancock at the Orpheum, by Patrick Ainsworth

Jazz, like light, changes every time you look at it. No one embodies this constant flux better than Herbie Hancock, who is still alive, well, and making moves at 77. Hancock graced the Orpheum with his superhuman stylings on Sunday, and the New Orleans jazz world looked on in awe.

Hancock’s Sunday set felt both traditional and progressive. That makes perfect sense, considering his career of constant innovation, spanning half a century and a multitude of genres. On Sunday, he physically spanned several generations of keyboard instruments, situating himself between a Fazoli Pianoforti and a Korg Kronos synth keyboard for maximum sedentary versatility, with a keytar close at hand for whenever he got frisky.

During his “overture,” a medley of diverse megahits from across his catalogue, his influence on current artists, from Robert Glasper to Thundercat to Kendrick Lamar, was clear. His sphere of influence extends to New Orleans, too, and local legends and up-and-comers alike peppered the crowd. Hancock is from Chicago, but Sunday night, it felt as though he’d finally come home.

After the extended overture, Hancock paused to introduce his band, itself a bona fide supergroup. “You have no idea what it’s like to play with these guys,” he gushed. “Everybody’s looking for these guys, and I don’t mean at the post office.

“Well, maybe you, Vinnie,” he chuckled, pointing at dead-eyed drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who has played with everyone from Chick Correa to Frank Zappa to Joni Mitchell. Next was equally prolific bassist James Genus, who Hancock noted has been “hiding in plain sight,” playing with the Saturday Night Live Band.

The final introduction, Terrace Martin, surprised and delighted the crowd. Most famous for his major role in the production and development of To Pimp a Butterfly, Martin is now a household name but not a household face. Only a small portion of the crowd recognized him before he was introduced. Over the course of the set, he played synth keyboard and alto sax, and flaunted a facility with the vocoder rivaling Hancock's own.

The show was a sampler of some of Hancock’s best work. Including the overture and the encore, he only played six songs all night, and left out many of his biggest hits, but the space he gave to each piece made the set feel more like a suite than a modern concert, and I doubt anyone left feeling cheated.

He led off with “Actual Proof,” his theme from the racially charged crime drama, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973). The song served as the first real showcase of the individual musicianship of the band members, each taking an extended solo.

The solos were spread around throughout the night, but as the show went on, the dynamic between Hancock and Martin took center stage. It was particularly prominent on “Come Running to Me,” a relatively deep cut from Sunlight (1978), Hancock’s first foray into the funk fusion that would later become his wheelhouse. It brought about one of the night’s best moments as Hancock and Martin harmonized on vocoder to create an eerie, two-man chorus that settled like radioactive smog over the rhythm section’s hypnotic groove.

There was plenty more vocoder action on “Secret Source,” an unreleased song that might end up on Hancock’s next release, produced by Martin. The song featured some of Hancock’s noisest, least tonal soloing of the night. Hopefully, this experimentation will make it onto the studio version. Hancock’s latest release, Monster, was a disco record that featured terrific musicianship and outstanding production, but didn't feel innovative by any stretch of the imagination. This new track was a hopeful sign of things to come.

Hancock closed his set with “Cantaloupe Island” and “Chameleon,” two of his career-defining hits. He pulled out all the stops for these last tracks, busting out his signature white keytar and showing off some fancy footwork, no easy feat for a septuagenarian. Martin may have given him a run for his money earlier in the set, but Hancock pulled away in the end, dispensing with the tasteful block chords of his first solos in favor of insane runs on both the grand piano and the synth, sometimes simultaneously.

Other than “Cantaloupe Island,” Hancock didn’t harken back to the ‘60s post-bop masterpieces that put him on the map, or to his immortal collab efforts with Miles Davis or Weather Report. Nor did he play his 1983 crossover smash “Rockit,” but he didn’t have to. His catalogue is deep enough that he can pretty much play whatever he wants, and no one who hasn’t already turned their nose up at his departure from “real jazz” will be too upset.

His omission of “Watermelon Man” came as a surprise, though. It’s the song that catapulted his career, both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait until I got home to hear it. The Spotted Cat became the aftershow party, where bassist Roland Guerin subbed for Pat Casey, who usually runs the Sunday hang. Guerin brought saxophonist Khris Royal, drummer Julian Addison, and trombonist Michael Watson on stage to start the set, and Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton joined them on the keys for a dazzling rendition of the song. It was a touching tribute, and it showed just how important Herbie Hancock still is to New Orleans jazz.

herbie hancock photo by patrick ainsworth Herbie Hancock, by Patrick Ainsworth

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