Concert Reviews

Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington Made History at the Mission Ballroom

At 79, Herbie Hancock's still got it.
At 79, Herbie Hancock's still got it. Chris Walker
“Are you ready for some really weird stuff?”

The question was rhetorical. “Of course we are,” the audience seemed to respond to Herbie Hancock, mostly through whoops, laughs and cheers. Hancock, a veteran showman at 79, seemed satisfied enough with the crowd’s retort. Because, boy, did Hancock deliver on the weird — as did his opener, Kamasi Washington — during an hours-long extravaganza Wednesday night at Denver’s newest concert venue, the Mission Ballroom.

Those in attendance know that the evening will go down as a legendary one in the Mission's newly established history. The concert had a magical feeling, as Hancock, the madcap pioneer of fusion jazz, resided like a godfather over his younger disciples, both in his own band and in Washington’s. Both groups dazzled the crowd with their technical ability, a cast of musicians each worth fawning over in their own right, whose faces were constantly screwed up in concentration while they jammed over complicated, multi-rhythmic time signatures.

Only aside from — I don’t know — a symphony orchestra concert somewhere, it’s safe to say there wasn’t another stage in North America that included as many prodigious musicians as the Mission Ballroom on Wednesday night. Particular standouts included Washington’s bassist, Miles Mosley, who received one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the evening for a mind-bending standup bass solo that combined furious plucking and dissonant bowing, leaving the 3,000-plus audience members wide-eyed.

During the opening set, Washington leaned heavily on his albums Harmony of Difference and Heaven and Earth, playing tunes including “Truth,” “Hub-Tones” and “Fists of Fury.” Hancock’s headlining set was more subdued than Washington’s (partly because he had one drummer, not two) and utilized lots of synthesized effects to create alien, otherworldly soundscapes — with funky undertones, of course. A particular highlight was “Actual Proof,” from the Headhunter days. And Hancock was in good company as well, with guitar and vocal virtuoso Lionel Loueke as well as the multi-talented musician Terrace Martin — who produced Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN and is producing Hancock’s next album — on keys and sax.

Really, you could go on and on about the mastery of each musician, most of whom probably passed their 10,000 hours of practice before they were twenty, as each worked his way through extended, live renditions of his original charts. The bandmembers seemed to appreciate their shared talent: Each time someone took a solo, those who didn’t have rhythm duties would stop what they were doing to listen carefully to their compatriot’s melodic statement, nodding in approval whenever they vibed on some particular phrasing.

click to enlarge Kamasi Washington dominates the stage. - CHRIS WALKER
Kamasi Washington dominates the stage.
Chris Walker
The performance was only the Mission Ballroom’s seventh show since opening on August 7, and the joint Washington-Hancock spectacle was a perfect stress test of the venue’s sound system; indeed, how would the venue balance huge bands on stage, with their musicians sporting dozens of pedals, effects, percussion quirks and vocoders?

The result was impressive. You could hear everything perfectly, no matter where you were standing or sitting in the cavernous space, echoing what Westword's Kyle Harris wrote about the venue after its debut concert last week. Aside from long lines going into the bathrooms during intermission, the flow of people and sound was well planned, making a strong case for the Mission becoming the top indoor concert venue in Colorado.

But as great as the sound was, Wednesday night’s show wasn't just legendary because of the music. We also witnessed a titan of twentieth-century jazz passing the torch to a new vanguard. Even Washington’s father, Rickey, was included in the show, (“The man who taught me everything I know,” his son said of him), highlighting the theme of one generation fostering another.

The night's encore cemented the theme of torch-passing. Over the rhythm of his classic funk tune “Chameleon,” Hancock grabbed a keytar and Washington came back on stage wielding his tenor saxophone. The musicians grinned as they approached each other center stage. And then, before we knew it, they were "trading fours," battling funky verse for funky verse, for over five minutes as everyone in the crowd witnessed the past, present and future of jazz right before their eyes.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker