DETROIT -- Herbie Hancock likes to play. And he likes to play around.
So it was with good humor and expert musicianship that the jazz keyboard pioneer helped open the 28th Detroit International Jazz Festival on Friday (Aug. 31) with a wide-ranging two-hour set that entranced the throng of fans at the Chase Main Stage near Campus Martius Park -- and left them dancing at the end.
Following an elegant performance by festival Artist in Residence Regina Carter, which featured a guest appearance by Detroit trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave on an extended version of "Little Brown Jug," the 67-year-old Hancock, who was celebrating his 39th wedding anniversary, didn't waste much having some fun with his audience. Noting that he'd promised to play his early '70s fan favorite "Watermelon Man," he opted to combine it with an intricate piece called "Seventeens" written by guitarist Lionel Loueke; in the ensuing medley, the song was only barely recognizable.
Hancock teased the crowd again immediately after, hinting that pop hitmaker John Mayer was in attendance to reprise his guest vocal on "Stitched Up" from Hancock's 2005 "Possibilities" duets album. "What?" Hancock said with a smile. "He missed the flight? He missed the flight yesterday -- every night!" Bassist Nathan East then took over the mic, starting with a playful call-and-response with the crowd before leading the band into the song.
During the rest of the show Hancock did not touch his upcoming album "River: The Joni Letters," an homage to Joni Mitchell" and focused mostly on "Possibilities" and his mid-'70s work. He did hit a mid-show ebb; though Loueke's solo spot, complete with playing hand percussion on his guitar, was intriguing, Hancock's solo take on "Maiden Voyage" was too quiet for the setting, and his version of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You," also from "Possibilities," was a nice nod to Motown but a flat reworking of an already tepid tune.
Things picked up after that, however. The U2/B.B. King song "When Love Comes to Town" gave the band -- which also included stellar drummer Vinnie Colaiuta -- a chance to stretch out, and a full rendering of "Watermelon Man" even brought the VIPs seated in front of the stage to their feet. The encore kept them there as Hancock strapped on a portable keyboard for "Chameleon." He was still smiling as he left the stage, having enjoyed his playtime as much as his fans did.
The Detroit International Jazz Festival runs through Monday in downtown Detroit. For information, visit www.detroitjazzfest.com.
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