On March 24th, 2002 I accompanied about a dozen of my Ottawa friends* to Montreal where we witnessed a jamband fiesta at the wonderful Metropolis at the hands of Herbie Hancock.
“Waitaminnit,” you might be saying, “Herbie Hancock is a jamband now?” To which I would respond by first congratulating you on formulating such an astute question. Clearly you are familiar with Hancock’s astounding career at the forefront of the late-modern jazz era, beginning with his inclusion in one of Miles Davis’ greatest ensembles when he was still just in his early twenties (drummer Tony Williams was only seventeen years old when he started playing with the same group) and running through dozens of solo albums and countless collaborations with a gamut of important jazz players from the last half of the Twentieth century and beyond, culminating in his undisputed legendary status amongst the jazz world.
But allow me to focus your attention on one particular – if thin – slice of Hancock’s legendary career, his 1973 studio album Head Hunters. Particularly the opening track, a mid-tempo bass-driven groove called Chameleon. This song has been covered by a who’s who of the jamband world from Gov’t Mule to Umphreys McGee and no wonder; it’s a jam ripe for endless noodling with an unmissable hook that cues up the most satisfying little rhythmic punctuation mark. It’s basically a template for the ethos of the jam scene, minus all the silly, poorly-sung lyrics, of which this song has none. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Medeski, Martin, & Wood as a musical concept on the whole wasn’t basically a nod to Chameleon.
I can hear you now: “Can it really be that an iconic jazz giant like Herbie Hancock would gain a new fringe audience/reputation based on one song he recorded decades ago?” You ask a lot of questions! Well, yes, and no. First: yes, yes, it can! These jamband people are rabid (and hardly fringe, I might add). They will travel far and spend heavily simply to stand in the same venue as just about any musical entity with even the most tenuous connection to the jamband scene that they love and support with everything they have. Secondly, Herbie Hancock actually had another jam-ready mainstay-in-waiting in Rockit, his early-’80’s MTV synth anthem that had a pretty sweet groove of its own. As a result I – a jazzhead at heart who had dipped his feet rather deeply into the jam thing – found myself surrounded by lots of my Ottawa peeps at this show, jam-fans every one.
Though now that I think about it many of them might have been there for The New Deal, one of the earlier live electronica bands – and a Canadian one at that – that had started to take a pretty big bite out of the jam scene at the time. I never really cared for them; it seemed to me they played build-your-own adventure songs that bounced between a half-dozen grooves by way of one-bar preset segues – a drumroll perhaps, or maybe an all-stop bass drop – as dictated by the keyboard player’s hand signals. Though it was a pretty good concept (and I saw them play a show in Guelph one time that was almost pretty good) the band generally got an overwhelming yawn from me.
Herbie, on the other hand, was pretty groovy, and though it almost seemed like he was pandering to the full house of jamfans (okay, it was Montreal so there must have been a considerable number of quietly critical jazzers like me in the house) he was touring yet another new album featuring yet another new jazztonica-ish sound called Future 2 Future, so he was at least intending to come to it from a somewhat fresh direction.
That said, among the ten or twelve songs (tops) that he played at this show both Chameleon and Rockit were among them. Basically, via a string of cover versions of his songs by just the right sort of noodlers Herbie had found a whole new layer of butter on a side of his bread that he had hitherto been unaware of. (The same analogy can be applied to John Scofield’s career since he teamed up with the aforementioned MMW and became an overnight jamband sensation.)
All commentary aside, it was a fun show enjoyed with good friends in one of the coolest venues in one of Canada’s best cities. 3.5 stars.
*I initially wrote “music friends” but deleted the adjective because it was redundant; all of my Ottawa friends are “music friends”.