When jazz pianist Herbie Hancock was a boy in Chicago, he used to take apart clocks and watches to see what was inside -- curiosity in action. Saturday at Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall, the tinkerer, now 73, went public as never before: Voilà! He premiered a techie's dream with new software, new keyboard configurations and 45 high-end speakers circling the 800-seat hall.
"The audio industry has been sleeping on the job," explained Hancock, announcing his latest mission: to bring the surround-sound of movie theaters to concert venues.
Opening the 42nd Stanford Jazz Festival, Hancock's sold-out solo event was more technology clinic than concert. It was a real night in Silicon Valley, starring one of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz -- a man who happens to be trained as an electrical engineer and is obsessed with bringing new technologies to music.
Alone onstage, swiveling between his instruments and computers -- it looked like an Apple showroom -- Hancock built rhythm tracks from scratch while tapping commands into five iPads. He used them to trigger the surround-sound effects: bass-heavy whooshes or the sounds of helicopter propellers (very "Blade Runner") or (better yet) the sounds of Hancock himself, soloing on keytar or synth keyboard. The sounds went flying around the hall, which sometimes rumbled like a Cineplex.
But sometimes didn't: some of the effects worked better than others; there are bugs to be worked out, as Hancock acknowledged. It was his rollout of a concept with which he's tinkered for about 20 years and which lately he's developed with sound designer Eric Persing, programmer Andrew Pask and the audio gurus at Meyer Sound Laboratories in Berkeley. Observing from the front row was Hancock's friend, Bryan Bell, the studio tech and consultant: "He was the guy who first introduced me to computers," Hancock said, with a laugh, "and he's lived to regret it ever since."
This peek inside Herbie's World had its fascinations, though the ratio of technology to music tipped heavily toward the technology side. It was as if Hancock, who lives in Los Angeles, had moved his home studio to the stage at Bing, while the audience watched him run some elaborate tests.
Yes, he did play music. Beginning the show on acoustic piano ("no technology, no nothing," he said), Hancock dissected Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," isolating fragments of melody and turning them on their heads to make new mini-tunes, or effortlessly filling in harmonies, essentially improvising an étude.
"Sonrisa," a Brazilian-tinged ballad, began on acoustic piano. Hancock lingered over its chords; he has a way of pulling you into his meditative and creative space. Then the surround-sound experiment began: rhythm tracks simulating drums, African harp and saturating strings, with Hancock dodging through the mix, soloing.
With Vocoder and synth keyboards, he simulated an electronic church -- Gregorian chant meets the Beach Boys -- then sustained a drenching chord and segued into "Maiden Voyage," his signature tune, while tapping an iPad to release radio bleeps and trippy waterfall sounds around the hall. Some of this felt random, and each tune went on for quite a while, as Hancock worked out his interfaces -- and as a technician resuscitated Hancock's keytar, a portable keyboard.
Over 90-plus minutes, Hancock surveyed some of his best ("Cantaloupe Island") and best-known ("Rockit") tunes. For an encore, he strapped on the keytar and played "Chameleon," a hit from Headhunter days. In Row P of the center section, where this listener was seated, the surround-sound was cranking as Hancock let his imagination fly, sounding for an instant like Jimi Hendrix playing the harpsichord in a funk band. He's no mere gear head; he's Herbie Hancock.
Through Aug. 10
What: More than 30 shows with headliners including bassist Stanley Clarke; tap dancer Savion Glover; pianist Chucho Valdes
Where: Various venues on campus; check schedule for details.
Tickets: most shows are $15 to $45; www.stanfordjazz.org