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Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang: the jazzman and the classical wonder pair up at the Hollywood Bowl

To prepare for the concerts, Hancock boned up on classical works to shine next to the Chinese virtuoso, who is taking his first steps toward improvisation.

August 07, 2009|Geraldine Baum

NEW YORK — Herbie Hancock checks out the sunset from the balcony of his hotel penthouse overlooking Park Avenue. The jazz legend is waiting for his latest musical partner: Lang Lang, a young classical pianist who was born in China and has become its most famous international musician.

Spiky haired and energetic, Lang Lang suddenly sweeps through the door reaching his arms out to Hancock.

"Herrrrbbbieee," Lang Lang bellows.

Mr. Young Ball of Fire embraces Mr. Gentleman Cool -- then they jostle and fist bump, each laughing. Lang Lang is dressed in white, from his safari-style suit right down to his loafers; Hancock is in black with a dark gray blazer, a detail he promptly reconsiders.

"Hey, I'm getting a white jacket for L.A., like you, from Versace," Hancock says, punctuating this with another of his trademark deep laughs made even deeper by a cold.

"What's wrong with you?" Lang Lang says, concerned. "You have a cold?"

Over the last month these mismatched collaborators have managed to cross cultures, generations and, most irreverently, musical genres to perform together in a concert series that culminates tonight and Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl.

Tonight will also mark the return to the city where the celebrity pianists first teamed in winter 2008 for a six-minute version of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the Grammy Awards telecast. It was a big night for Hancock, who won his 12th Grammy, this one for album of the year for "River: The Joni Letters." Lang Lang recalls watching Hancock's wife, Gigi, weeping backstage and wanting to cry himself.

After the show, over dinner in Chinatown, the pianists agreed that "it would be cool to do something together," Hancock says.

That something turned into facing each other, at spooning pianos, for most of July at outdoor festivals and concert halls in Europe, Canada and in the United States. They put together a repertoire involving classical pieces such as an obscure concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as jazz solos, "Rhapsody in Blue" and a Chinese folk song. For a four-handed arrangement of Maurice Ravel's difficult "Mother Goose" Suite, they sat side by side, shoulder to shoulder.

Reviews have ranged from tepid to ecstatic. Lang Lang, whose first home in America was Philadelphia, where he attended the Curtis Institute of Music, isn't aware that a critic there concluded that their Gershwin was "loaded with gratuitous feats of virtuosity either cute or schmaltzy and oddly disconnected to the core material."

"I only saw the day after that 7,000 tickets were sold, the most crowded concert there ever," Lang Lang says next to Hancock at a dining room table in the penthouse suite. "I didn't even read the review."

Hancock did read it, but it didn't bother him: "We decided to have fun with ['Rhapsody in Blue']. And we have been doing that. It was written as a show piece, so we just kind of took it a little farther."

At 69, the pianist, composer, arranger and band leader has had many bursts of creativity, many reinventions within the world of jazz, and collaborated with artists including Joni Mitchell, Sting and, of course, Miles Davis. It is clear this time around he is primarily focused on the excitement of having a new experience in music with an affable partner.

Before he began practicing for their tour, Hancock hadn't touched a piece of classical music since he was 20.

A Chicago native, he was a child piano prodigy and won a contest at age 10 to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart's "Coronation" Concerto. But at 14, he says, he discovered the freedom inherent in jazz that allowed him to simultaneously play and compose, and by 20 he gave up the classical stuff.

To prepare for the tour with Lang Lang, Hancock spent three weeks practicing classical works for four and five hours a day.

Once on the road, he says, he paid close attention to his colleague, a 27-year-old virtuoso who already has been on the stage of just about every great musical hall in the world.

"Lang has this amazing gift and amazing sound, and when he first told me that what inspired him to play music as a kid was 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons, I just laughed," Hancock says.

He also credits Lang Lang with helping to reassure him "that there is some freedom in classical music."

"I've been noticing that he has been changing certain things to refresh the pieces that we're playing night after night, little subtle things that the audience may not notice, certain things played in different octaves . . ."

For Lang Lang, who started playing piano at age 3 and soared into stardom by age 10, this tour has been an opportunity to try jazz improvisation.

As Hancock improvised along with Lang Lang's playing of a Chinese folk song, the younger performer followed his lead but gingerly.

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