By Dave Pehling
BERKELEY (CBS SF) — Two of the leading lights of modern jazz world bring their co-headlining tour to Berkeley Friday when piano legend Herbie Hancock and rising saxophonist giant Kamasai Washington play the Greek Theatre.READ MORE: King Tides: Coastal Flood Advisory Issued For San Francisco Bay Shoreline This Weekend
Over the course of his 40+ year career, Hancock has proven himself comfortable whether exploring to his acoustic, hard-bop roots or experimenting with the latest in electronic gadgetry. Approaching his 80th birthday next year, the keyboardist continues to blaze new trails. A critical favorite who still managed to score chart hits (almost unheard of for a jazz artist), Hancock’s resume reads like a timeline of important musical landmarks from the early 1960s forward.
Hancock made an early mark as a sideman with trumpet player Donald Byrd and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Phil Woods, but came to fame playing in the seminal ’60s quintet of Miles Davis. though he was already recording as a leader for Blue Note Records. In fact, it was his stellar solo debut Takin’ Off with the oft-covered hit “Watermelon Man” that caught the trumpet player’s ear. The pianist produced a string of his own classic albums as well as cranking out dozens of recording sessions with fellow Davis quintet members Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams, guitarist Grant Green, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and trumpet players Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.
Hancock contributed to the trumpeter’s final acoustic-oriented masterworks like Sorcerer and Nefertiti as well as helping shepherd early fusion landmarks Filles de Kilamangaro and In a Silent Way before branching out on his own path into electric jazz. The keyboardist reached the outer limits with the heady, spiritual expansiveness of his sextet Mwandishi (the efforts Crossings and Sextant still sound futuristic to this day) before taking fusion into a more populist, funky direction with his successful Headhunters band. His albums Head Hunters and Thrust put a jazzy spin on the hard funk of Sly Stone and James Brown and made the group arena headliners
The musician would explore a myriad of avenues during the rest of the ’70s, making albums with more of a commercial slant, but also recording and touring as an acoustic piano duo with fellow Davis alumnus Chick Corea and reuniting with Miles quintet members Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard filling in for Davis as the group V.S.O.P.
In 1983, Hancock scored a massive pop hit with his pioneering jazz-meets-hip-hop dance-floor classic “Rockit” that marked his first collaboration with bassist/producer Bill Laswell. The song’s surreal video garnered heavy MTV airplay and his live performance of the tune on the Grammys telecast in 1984 featuring Grandmixer D.ST scratching records would inspire a generation of hip-hop DJs in the decade that followed.
Hancock has remained as searching as ever in more recent years, immersing himself in electronica for Future2Future (which reunited the keyboardist with “Rockit” producer Bill Laswell”), indulging in all-star collaborations with both jazz artists (the Directions in Music group, which paid tribute to the music of Davis and John Coltrane) and musicians in the pop and rock world (2002’s Possibilities with Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Sting).
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Perhaps his biggest triumph was his 2007 album River: The Joni Letters, a salute to the music of Joni Mitchell which shocked the music world when it won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Hancock continues to tour regularly with his current band featuring gifted West African guitarist Lionel Loueke, monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist James Genus and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin, who is currently helping with production on Hancock’s forthcoming album that will include contributions from longtime collaborator Shorter, acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar, bass virtuoso Thundercat, DJ/producer Flying Lotus, and the pianist’s current tourmate, saxophone player Kamasi Washington.
While Washington has had a meteoric rise over the past few years, the adventurous band leader has been making a name for himself for well over a decade. A precocious musical talent, Washington studied at the prestigious Alexander Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music in Los Angeles before getting accepted to UCLA on a scholarship to study with the Department of Enthnomusicology.
Washington would perform with noted faculty members like guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Billy Higgins and began independently releasing his own albums in 2004. Equally adept with jazz and hip-hop — he has collaborated with his hero Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock as well as such rap luminaries as Nas, Snoop Dogg and producer Flying Lotus — last year Washington was a major contributor to Kendrick Lamar’s landmark 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. The album earned universal critical acclaim and ended up winning multiple Grammys.
Washington released his own celebrated three-disc opus The Epic on the Brainfeeder imprint run by Flying Lotus just two months after Lamar’s album hit stores, garnering equally high praise. Working with members of his extended West Coast Get Down collective, songs on the The Epic interweave elements of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders’ fire-breathing ’60s exploration, Hancock’s spiritually minded electric Mwandishi ensemble and the funky global groves of NYC collective Oneness of Juju.
In 2016, Washington and his band became an in-demand attraction at international music festivals, playing sets at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Chicago’s PitchforkMusic Festival and San Francisco’s own Outside Lands, where the band’s electrifying early Sunday set was a high point of the day (if not the entire weekend). Even as some of his collaborators branch off to record their own bands — most notably bassist-turned-vocalist Thundercat and keyboardist Cameron Graves and acoustic bass player Miles Mosely — the gravitational pull of Washington’s creative power has kept most of those players in his orbit and contributing to his latest opus, the ambitious sophomore album Heaven and Earth.
Managing to match if not surpass the complexity and sprawl of The Epic, Washington’s latest release on Young Turks Records is split into two hour-plus halves (not including the album’s special bonus 40-minute companion EP, The Choice) and offers up listeners another heady dose of Afro-futurism. Musically, the band continues to nod towards the costumed cosmic pageantry and choral vocals of Sun Ra’s Arkestra while delving deep into ecstatic modal exploration and transcendent themes. On Friday, Washington brings his ensemble featuring vocalist Patrice Quinn, keyboard phenom Brandon Coleman, powerhouse bassist Mosley and dueling drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley Friday evening for the final date of the co-headlining tour with Hancock. Keyboard talent Robert Glasper, who like Hancock has proven himself to be equally adept in the worlds of traditional jazz, electric experimentation and hip hop, opens the show.MORE NEWS: Smash-And-Grab Thieves Hit San Jose Eastridge Mall Jewelry Store; 5 Sought
Herbie Hancock and Kamasai Washington
Friday, Aug. 23, 8 p.m. $49.50-$125
UC Berkeley Greek Theatre