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Herbie Hancock Live in San Diego

Jazz legend performs at Balboa Theatre September 23

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If you love jazz, you know who Herbie Hancock is, and you’ve already bought your ticket to his show at the Balboa Theater this Friday night. But even if you’ve never stepped foot in a jazz club, you’ve probably experienced Herbie Hancock. His standards “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island” are frequently heard in Hollywood and video game soundtracks.

Those of you old enough to remember the early days of hip hop may recall how electrifying it was to hear the turntablism in “Rockit” those too young to remember may have heard “Rockit” in the feature film Zoolander, or sampled in over a dozen hip hop and pop charts. Ever see Death Wish, Blowup, Harlem Nights, A Soldier’s Story, or Colors? Hancock’s music underscored those films. And the man himself appeared in one of the greatest fictional films about jazz ever made, ‘Round Midnight. You can hear his music closing the film. 

Herbie Hancock’s album River, is only the second jazz recording in the history of the Grammy Awards to win Album of the Year (Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto were the first in 1965 for Getz/Gilberto). His jazz covers of Joni Mitchell songs on that album beat out Amy Winehouse, Kanye West, Vince Gill, and Foo Fighters in 2008. All the more impressive considering that his competitors had all outsold Hancock before the Grammy Awards that year.

Jazz musicians and fans rave about Hancock’s piano work in one of the greatest jazz units of all time, the 1960s edition of the Miles Davis Quintet. Hancock was only 23 when Miles Davis handpicked him to join Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (all young, fairly unknown musicians at the time) as his rhythm section. It was there that Hancock and his partners revolutionized jazz harmony, popularizing chords built on fourths instead of thirds. On Hancock’s own recording, Maiden Voyage, the title track is harmonized entirely by sus chords, a daring concept which has since become standard practice in jazz.

Like Miles Davis, Hancock has been musically restless, a jazz Odysseus who has traveled from one genre to the next. His album Headhunters is one of the landmark jazz fusion LPs of the 1970s, and “Rockit” was the first widely played track that featured turntable scratching, influencing an entire generation of DJs. His Grammy-award winning, River, featured pop vocalists such as Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Norah Jones in the context of jazz arrangements, in addition to featuring straight-ahead jazz instrumentals of Mitchell tunes.

His latest album, The Imagine Project, unites musicians from rock, pop, jazz, and world music in pop interpretations of utopian songs such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.”  Hancock’s publicists have been tight-mouthed about what to expect on this tour, other than new arrangements of Hancock’s earlier charts.

Joining him on piano will be African guitarist, Lionel Loueke, versatile bassist James Genus (whose “day job” is playing in the Saturday Night Live band), and rock/pop/jazz drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, notorious for his work with Frank Zappa. Expect an eclectic show performed with the utmost taste and skill, without sacrificing any excitement. This promises to be the most unusual jazz concert of the year.

Herbie Hancock performs at the Balboa Theatre Friday, September 23.
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