Not what I was hoping for.
Herbie Hancock brought his “The Imagine Project” tour to Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on Monday night and the show veered far afield of “jazz concert” and deep into the realm of “rock show” with lots of flashing swirling lights, keyboardist Greg Pillinganes’ repeated exhortations for the audience to clap along and vocalist Kristina Train’s big, soulful voice often overpowering the rest of the music onstage.
Yes, the 70-year-old Hancock did play a bit of jazz, but mostly it was as dense as a thicket with meandering, randomly interwoven solos.
Then there was the dreaded keytar. While Hancock spent most of his time slipping back and forth between his synthesizer and the grand piano, he brandished his strap-on synth early for an interminable rendition of his classic “Watermelon Man.” He tried to turn it into a funk-bomb, but his squawking, whining keytar sounded more like the AFLAC duck than a funky clavinet. Meanwhile, Philliganes’ synthesized horn section riffs came from the opposite direction, determined to push the song into a blaring, big band arrangement.
With Train at the microphone, John Lennon’s “Imagine” was feebly re-invented as a world-pop soul number layered over with samples of the fabulous Konono No. 1 and African singer Oumou Sangare.
Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” also failed to gel, as Train sang in Gaelic and played about three bars on violin. Phillinganes fared a little better on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in large part because his big voice suited the song. But the Phillinganes-Train duet on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” was sapped of its inherent strength by an overwrought arrangement.
The sublime West African guitarist Lionel Loueke turned in one of the best vocal performances of the night on “Tamatant Tilay,” only to have it marred by the instrusive mash-up with Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”
Ultimately, one of the most successful selections of the two-hour-plus performance was the closing “Space Captain,” the old Mad Dogs & Englishmen-era Joe Cocker nugget. By then, the band had abandoned its attempt to shoehorn the songs into global-embracing worldbeat anthems and Train soared with some straight-ahead gospel-rock wailing.
Best of all was Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark,” the only selection performed from Hancock’s Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year, “River: The Joni Letters.” Hancock coaxed the song into the spotlight with a thoughtful piano solo. Bassist James Genus switched to acoustic bass to lay down a warm foundation. Train got subtle. And Loueke eased into an impossibly delicate and hushed guitar solo.
More of that genuine intimacy would have certainly been welcome, but it wasn’t to be. Hancock strapped on his keytar again and launched into the electro-funk of “Chameleon” for his encore. The crowd shouted their approval, leapt from their seats and began dancing in the aisles.
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Seth Rogovoy’s review in Berkshire Living Magazine