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Hancock's Signature Style

Pianist, Who Plays Costa Mesa Tonight, Continues to Put His Mark on All Types of Music

August 15, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Greenwich Village was unusually quiet during the Thanksgiving weekend of 1993, except for the knot of people gathered each night outside the fabled Blue Note jazz club. Inside, the place was crammed with local fans and musicians; each had been willing to pay the stiff $46 cover (plus a two-drink minimum) to hear pianist Herbie Hancock's new acoustic trio.

The gig marked a new direction for Hancock, a musician who frequently pursues multiple directions at once. Known best as the synthesizer wizard who gave us the '70s electronic beat anthem "Rock-It," Hancock actually never abandoned the distinctive acoustic style that had earned him a reputation in the '60s, both as a young member of the Miles Davis band and with a string of fine Blue Note-label albums under his own name.

Working with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Gene Jackson--the same men who play with him tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (saxophonist Craig Handy also will be on hand)--Hancock was looking to redefine familiar standard material at the Blue Note. One almost could hear him thinking as he played, experimenting here, getting serious there and often just kicking back and having fun. There was wild applause at the end of every tune.

Hancock "was developing an approach to the standard that reharmonized them, that transformed the rhythms, rethinking them in entirely different ways," recalls arranger Bob Belden. "And that was the same thing we wanted to do" on Hancock's recent acoustic album, "The New Standard" (on Verve).

Some of the tunes on "The New Standard" are not exactly straight from the standard jazz repertoire. Songs from Prince and Peter Gabriel share space with Paul Simon's "Scarborough Fair" (!), Lennon-McCartney's "Norwegian Wood" and Kurt Cobain's "All Apologies." But each is marked by Hancock's one-of-a-kind play.

Belden says he asked Hancock about the choice of material "and he told me wanted tunes that didn't have fingerprints on them, that we could approach in a new way and personalize. That's what I did with the arrangements; that's what Herbie did when he played.

"I think it's amazing that people are embracing the music on the level that the musicians are creating it," Belden continues. "The way they play [on the album] is just the way the hard-core jazz fans would want them to play, flat out, like a Ferrari.

"And how many pianists do you know who can just play the melody, any melody, and you immediately know who it is? The power of Herbie's musical identity is so strong that in one fell swoop, he has put these tunes into an entirely new context."

Hancock will no doubt perform a sampling of these tunes at the Performing Arts Center. But, as he did at the Blue Note, he almost certainly will explore more traditional standards as well--along with his own compositions, some of which ("Dolphin Dance," "Canteloupe Island," "Maiden Voyage") have achieved standard status themselves.

* The Herbie Hancock Quartet plays tonight at 8 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $22-$44. (714) 556-2787.

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