Herbie Hancock: Gershwin’s World

COMPOSERS: Herbie Hancock
LABELS: Verve
WORKS: Gershwin’s World
PERFORMER: Herbie Hancock (p, org), Madou Dembelle (djembe), Massamba Diop (talking drum), Cyro Baptista, Bireyma Guiye, Cheik Mbaye (perc), Eddie Henderson (t), Kenny Garrett (as), James Carter (ts, ss), Ira Coleman, Alex Al, Bakithi Kumalo (b), Terri Lyne Carringt
CATALOGUE NO: 557 797-2
Given the tricky business of marketing jazz, some cynics might look askance at the big names – Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Kathleen Battle – appearing in this jazz album to celebrate the centenary of George Gershwin’s birth. But Herbie Hancock, whose broad conception crosses boundaries and embraces most musical genres has risen magnificently to the occasion.

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Gershwin’s music has provided several generations of jazz musicians with innumerable pieces which are excellent vehicles for improvisation. Hancock has dug deep in the vaults and his strikingly imaginative tribute is full of rare feeling and creative surprises. Even the opening piece, ‘Overture (Fascinating Rhythm)’, delightfully wrong-foots the listener because Gershwin’s tune never appears and instead we get five fascinating African percussionists playing rhythm for 53 seconds, punctuated by only two single chords from Hancock’s piano. The aim is clearly not merely to recreate some Gershwin music, but to get inside it, even deconstruct it. The African percussionists appear individually on some of the other tracks, and this emphasis on the rhythmic implications of Gershwin’s music results in some marvellously funky performances.

Hancock’s version of ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, is underpinned by an insistent, brooding riff; the tune is deconstructed into thematic fragments.

Other high spots are Joni Mitchell’s heartfelt vocal in ‘The Man I Love’, with Wayne Shorter’s exquisite tenor sax obbligato and his two brief solos.

Not all the works are by Gershwin. Music is included by people who influenced or inspired him and one of the most riveting performances is of WC Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’. Hancock, Alex Al and Terri Lyne Carrington create extraordinarily ecstatic rocking grooves, and Stevie Wonder brings a wild intensity to his singing and harmonica playing.

By contrast, Hancock, who plays superbly throughout the album, performs his 11-minute version of Gershwin’s beautiful and melancholy ‘Lullaby’ with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

James P Johnson, the great stride pianist, was an inspiration to Gershwin, and his ‘Blueberry Rhyme’ is given a swashbuckling stride outing by Hancock and Chick Corea on two pianos.

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Kathleen Battle delivers a fine wordless vocal in Hancock’s distillation of Gershwin’s bluesy ‘Prelude in C sharp minor’. The variety and dynamism of this music are exhilarating.