Musicians in their elder years tend to follow one of two paths: grow stale repeating what they have already done or fight to stay fresh by pushing their limits.
Pianist Herbie Hancock of Miles Davis Quintet fame, studio saxophone master Michael Brecker and trumpet prodigy Roy Hargrove are legends of jazz that have pushed their limits and destroyed them. Effortlessly navigating jazz, funk, soul and rock while masterfully dominating each one, they can do anything they want in the skip of a beat. The sold-out Arts & Lectures show in Campbell Hall on Feb. 10 immediately demonstrated how apt their tour’s title, “Directions in Music,” is.
They opened with a spacious series of incoherent sounds – indiscriminate voices, ambient winds, lingering pedal tones – a randomness of sounds that gradually congealed to form a primordial ooze from which various musical life-forms would emerge. The jazz swing rhythm hatched, bit by bit, until an acid-fuelled organism was fully spawned from the drums, bass and electric piano. Each of the successive solos told the next phase in this entity’s life as it existed and grew second by second before the audience. The 20-minute saga saw the creature’s full maturation through times turbulent and tranquil and inevitably, when the music stops, its death. The rest of the show birthed creatures in a similar fashion, keeping in pace with the opening number.
“It’s about doing things in music that haven’t really been done before … being able to go in any direction at any moment.”
Where lots of jazz focuses on one improviser with everyone else supporting, this group collectively improvises together. Bassist Scott Colley described the experience as “throwing bits and pieces of written information at each other and then seeing what comes about organically.”
Hancock had a multitude of acoustic and sampled sounds between his real-time use of an Apple laptop and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) acoustic piano with a small keyboard on top. Brecker also had his laptop out to play such instruments as the ewee – a MIDI-controlled black box with a saxophone mouthpiece. Brecker was able to manipulate any sound sample in real time and loop them.
Brecker used eccentric sounds, even samples of yodeling, to draw in the audience, surprise them and occasionally get a laugh. At one point he used the ewee to become a one-man band. Hancock was changing his sound in the middle of songs from piano to funky synthesizer and every texture in between.
The entire concert spoke to audience members, whether they were experienced or amateur jazz listeners.
“This music is a language,” Colley said. “We’re trying to communicate and have a conversation on stage every night. So what you see tonight could be completely different than what you see tomorrow night and then next night.”
There’s no room to doubt the group’s intention to keep things that way. “[Jazz] is one of the few art forms where there’s a high level of spontaneity and creativity every night created in front of an audience, allowing the audience to sort of participate in that process,” Brecker said.