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Herbie Hancock at the Barbican: An Embodiment of ‘Jazz as Democratic Discourse’

In his 2011 lecture Music as Metaphor, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis expounded on the idea of ‘jazz as democratic discourse’ as an example of how American music contains many symbols of American life. Hancock’s performance at the Barbican on the 22nd of June was the epitome of this idea.

Herbie Hancock is a giant and a mainstay of American jazz. Having worked closely with Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the 1960s, Hancock went on to become one of the most influential pioneers of jazz in the 1970s, composing a number of standards including ‘Chameleon’, ‘Cantaloupe Island’, and ‘Maiden Voyage’. His enduring innovation and relevance have seen him collaborate with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Joni Mitchell, and win 14 Grammys.

His performance at the Barbican Hall, London (a fantastic venue) on the 22nd of June was a demonstration of all his attributes as a performer, composer, and bandleader. Joining him on stage were only the finest musicians: trumpeter Terence Blanchard (composer for many of Spike Lee’s films), bassist James Genus, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and drummer Justin Tyson. The five together ran the full gamut of jazz, from soft, tender ballads to some face-melting ‘weird stuff’, as he called it.

Throughout the concert, Hancock and co. embodied Marsalis’ idea of ‘jazz as democratic discourse’. Their use of call & response, particularly between Hancock, Loueke, and Blanchard was a great demonstration of this, as was their patience to sit back and listen as each man was given the sonic and temporal space to play freely, as with Genus’ long, experimental solo on one tune.

Picture credit: barbican

The beauty of jazz, in particular Hancock’s brand, is that it is not through-composed, not written out from start to finish. Its essence is in the spontaneous contributions of its players, who put forward their ideas and interpretations of universal themes and ideas. In this way, jazz does represent the democratic process in its ideal form: the patient consideration of each other’s ideas, in order to interact and respond to them thoughtfully. Hancock, even though he might deserve it, at no point behaved like some kind of musical despot, imposing his vision and ideas in supremacy to those of his bandmates. Instead, he opted to play a composition by Loueke, and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’, as arranged by Blanchard, while also giving each player a number of moments in the spotlight. This could well have been a night of ‘greatest hits’, but Hancock chose to showcase the talents of his bandmates alongside his own.

On several occasions, he stood up and spoke to the audience, reflecting on the ‘jazz family’, which includes the relationships within the band and the synergistic relationship between the performers and their audience. He extrapolated this idea of a family further, suggesting that a universal recognition that we are all one human family is the solution to issues like climate change. I can’t say that he was all that wrong.

Herbie Hancock at the Barbican was a wonderful experience. It was surreal to sit in the second row as one of my favourite musicians, and a legend of music itself, walked out on stage, a little grin at the corner of his mouth throughout the show. Hancock and his band were a fine example of the democratic process represented in music. Young, middle-aged, and elderly all present in one group, presenting their ideas to each other and engaging in conversation, a jazz discussion group if you will. It was a reminder of the transcendent nature of music, its potential as a metaphor for the wider world, and the genius of the man himself.

His set from Glastonbury is now on iPlayer.

Written by Jared White