The unfortunately named Herbie Hancock Tribute at the Jazz Market felt under-rehearsed and under-planned, but skated by on chops and charm.
When you Google “Mr. Hands,” the Wikipedia entry “Enumclaw horse sex case” is the first link, followed by the entry for Mr. Hands, a lesser-known Herbie Hancock album. So why didn’t anyone involved in the planning of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s “Mr. Hands: A Tribute to Herbie Hancock ft. Robert Glasper,” a big-ticket performance last Friday night at the New Orleans Jazz Market, take a moment to reevaluate their event title?
Luckily for NOJO and Glasper, their unfortunate name choice went unnoticed in the media, and last Friday’s show sold out. It’s a good thing, too, because the crowd was treated to a dazzling display of musicianship and a fitting tribute to one of the most innovative artists of all time.NOJO started Friday night off with songs from three late New Orleans music legends: Harold Battiste, Allen Toussaint, and Clyde Kerr. Each song was arranged for the full orchestra and featured a soloist. Trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, the first of the night’s many featured vocalists, stepped up to the mic for Kerr’s “Daybreak."
Adonis Rose, NOJO’s creative director and drummer, started the Herbie Hancock section of the night with a brief intro on Herbie and a much longer one on Glasper, who entered stage right with a smile on his face and a drink in his hand. Dressed in sneakers, faded jeans, a “Chicago: We Invented the Footwork” T-shirt, and a tight grey beanie, he looked like an oversized middle schooler crashing a black-tie gallery opening. He acknowledged his attire at one point, looking down at himself, shaking his head and saying, “Damn. I think I have skinny jeans on."
From that moment on, the evening’s atmosphere was decidedly light. Glasper and Rose, who have played together sporadically for years, had a fully established back-and-forth. Glasper told the story of their first professional encounter, playing in Nicholas Payton’s band on a jazz cruise. Glasper, then a sophomore at The New School, was offered the chance to step in for Anthony Wonsey, who couldn’t make the show. It was his biggest gig yet, and he was nervous but confident. Then, just as he was about to take his first solo on “Back to the Source,” he noticed a wheelchair-bound Oscar Peterson being “parked” right in front of the piano.
"I was already nervous, but [Peterson] was my first influence on the piano, so I don’t even know what happened after that. I don’t think they ever called me back,” Glasper said, looking accusatorily at Rose. “But thanks for calling me now.”
The joke there is that Glasper is arguably the most in-demand jazz pianist in the world right now, and can play with whomever he chooses. When Glasper played The Joy Theater in December alongside The Soul Rebels, Talib Kweli, and Curren$y, he took a supporting role and rarely showcased his virtuosic soloing. Friday night, he slid naturally into the role of frontman and imposed himself as the featured performer on nearly every track, even when there were singers involved. He made a show of his reverence for Hancock, but hammed it up hard on his solos and in his monologues, and it often seemed like he was more enamored with the sound of his own voice (and hands) than with Hancock's original works.
Featured singers were peppered throughout the evening, from NOJO trombonist Michael Watson to Jesse McBride’s Next Generation vocalist Christian Bold to solo diva Nayo Jones. The biggest surprise came at the end of the night, when Al B. Sure! was invited onstage to perform Quincy Jones’ smash hit, “The Secret Garden.” Sure! performed his own verse on the song, as well as Barry White’s, El DeBarge’s, and James Ingram’s, perfectly producing each singer’s inflections. It was impressive and entirely unexpected.
Off-the-cuff moments like these sold the show on Friday, though it was lacking in other areas. Only three Hancock songs— “I Thought It Was You,” “Butterfly,” and “Sorcerer”—were fully arranged for the orchestra. Glasper, Scott and Rose played the rest of the tracks as a trio. They sounded great, but it would have been nice to hear more of the orchestra at its full potential. For most of the night, the horn section was just the VIP area of the audience.
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is still recovering from the bad publicity surrounding Irvin Mayfield and Ronald Markham’s ongoing money laundering scandal, which forced them to step down as artistic director and CEO in 2016. Events like last Friday's are essential to the case for keeping NOJO around. The sold out "Mr. Hands" was a step towards rebuilding the orchestra's injured community image. But if NOJO wants to draw crowds without a Robert Glasper, Sheila E. or Christian Scott heading the bill, it will need to work a little harder and make its identity clearer.