Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington Prove Jazz Still Sells

Berkeley’s Greek was impressively packed for an evening of inspired experimentation.

What happens when a funk-fusion master and an acclaimed saxophonist share a stage?

This question was the selling point for a recent tour pairing 14-time Grammy winner Herbie Hancock and current jazz darling Kamasi Washington. The prospect of Hancock sharing a stage with Washington — wildly impressive young saxophonist with two albums to his name so far — was tantalizing, to say the least, but would the masses agree?

By the time opener Robert Glasper (a three-time Grammy winner in his own right, if we’re keeping score) took the stage at The Greek Theatre on Friday night, it was clear that the Bay Area’s appetite for jazz has yet to give. Even more encouraging, the audience for Hancock and Washington was notably diverse. To see fans of so many different ethnicities, genders, and ages all brought together by a love of jazz (or, in a few fairly obvious instances, by someone else’s love of jazz) was heartwarming beyond measure. 

Thanks to institutions like SF Jazz and Yoshi’s in Oakland, Bay Area residents are never starved for quality live jazz. That said, it doesn’t inherently mean that a bill of a saxophonist many older fans may not know and a legend’s legend that, despite his worthiness, has never been celebrated quite as robustly as some of his peers, would sell 8500 tickets. That’s the Greek’s capacity, and to see it reached in recognition of Hancock and Washington is yet another reminder that even if our local cultural wins feel few and far between these days, they haven’t evaporated entirely.

For the lucky fans who arrived promptly, the unannounced addition of Glasper as a prelude to the night’s main offerings was the equivalent of a sundae-sized cherry being added to the peak of your Mount Bellyache. If you don’t speak Simpsons, that means it was a huge gift to watch Glasper oversee a brief but scintillating set of R&B pieces that push the boundaries of the genre but never disrespect it. 

When Glasper informed the crowd of his substantial contributions to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, an expression of recognition and delight spread infectiously through the audience. Even If his style of play wasn’t perfectly suited to the rather lofty confines of the Greek, his swagger and skill on the keyboards made the issue irrelevant.

Next to perform was Washington, who has gone from playing the 500-capacity Independent in San Francisco to the Greek in a matter of three years. Thankfully, the venue was more or less the only major difference in the saxophonist’s set. As he did in 2016, Washington welcomed a sizeable assembly of musicians to join him, including his father, tenor saxophonist Rickey Washington.

The style of jazz Washington plays isn’t easy to render in words. At times it can be conventionally rhythmic but it’s also quite prone to jags of experimentation. The ebbs and flows of a substantial piece like “Fists of Fury” wander through so much fertile territory, from systematic rage to the new age spirituality of jazz acolytes like Alice Coltrane, that it feels insufficient to try to tame such raw creativity into conventional sentences. 

Instead, it can be safely stated that even if the show were to somehow be on “mute,” it would still be worth attending just to watch the ferocity and precision with which Washington wields his voice of brass. Acknowledging that the evening represented the final date of his tour with Hancock, he declared the summer to be “one of the biggest honors” of his life. 

“I got to tour with one of my heroes,” Washington said with serene bliss. 

That hero, the 79-year-old Herbie Hancock, is still a magician with a keyboard.

What Hancock played is almost irrelevant. If it matters, popular works like “Actual Proof” and “Chameleon” were included in his performance, but the true highlight was how little it would’ve mattered if they’d opted to skip them instead. From the moment Hancock sat down to his extended farewell (which saw the artist wave and bow to fans from every spot on the stage long after the rest of his band had left), it was clear that the journey itself was the main attraction.

No special guests were required to make the evening feel exceptional, but they arrived nonetheless. Elena Penderhughes, a Berkeley flutist and vocalist, spent several long stretches of the evening at center stage. Gifted with both an entrancing voice and a mastery for the flute that is rarely seen today, Penderhughes was a stand-out each time the spotlight narrowed on her.

Overall, Hancock invited Washington to solo on two songs. Both times, the combined majesty of the former’s keyboard wizardry and the latter’s smoldering intensity with a sax was a mesmerizing force. Despite the appeal of being present for something so rare, it is a sight so many more fans of music deserve to see. To that end, let us hope this renaissance in appreciation for jazz, coupled with a new generation of staggering talent, can ensure such moments don’t soon become history.

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