An opening act for the American jazz pioneer is unnecessary, though Herbie Hancock isn’t received sans introduction. Drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. takes to his elevated kit and begins the show with a showcase of his rhythmic talents. Bassist James Genus is next to take stage and add his signature funky bass lines, and to the delight of the audience, the man of the hour is not far behind.

This is a privilege, and the crowd is well aware. Hancock’s ensemble is short keyboardist Greg Philinganes and vocalist Kristina Train has yet to take stage, but at this moment, the music universe aligned.

You’d think that on this – his 50th year in the business – the pianist would be, if only slightly, rough around the edges… Au contraire.

Hancock strolls casually on stage wearing a pink polo and dark denim jacket, both collars popped. He takes in all the wild applause before his sits, cornered by a sleek grand piano and his synthesizer. From there, the trio move straight into a crisp sounding rendition of ‘Chameleon’ that floats effortlessly between the song’s signature melodies and those you never see coming. As Lisa Simpson says, ‘you have to listen to the notes he’s not playing.’ Sure, it’s easy to understand why contemporary jazz confuses the hell out of most people, but Hancock’s signature style is his spontaneity – this is the jazz virtuoso at his finest.

The song’s epic, near 20 minute round up is greeted with more eager applause and Train finally takes the stage to lull the crowd with a change of pace. She’s brought on to sing Hancock’s rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – a track off his ambitious album ‘The Imagine Project’ with covers by the likes of Pink, Seal, India Arie and Jeff Beck on the recording. There is a soulful power to Train’s vocals that intrigues, however, and we don’t miss her lack of celebrity.

Train leaves the stage as the trio revisit and alter Hancock classics ‘Actual Proof’ and ‘Canteloupe Island’ in a similar improvised fashion, and she returns to cover more songs off his latest album – Bob Marley‘s ‘Exodus’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times, They Are A Changing’ – covered by K Naan, Los Lobos, The Chieftains and Lisa Hannigan on the album. Hancock himself is the first to admit that collaborating with so many vocalists presents a challenge while touring, but he remedies the problem with his soft sense of humor and syncs the vocal tracks up with the music via computer. ‘It’s 2011,’ he explains. ‘The technology is here so we may as well use it.’

The climax of the performance comes when the surprisingly young-blooded 71 year-old takes down his keytar from off its stand. The instrument must have baffled most serious pianists at the time of its invention, but Hancock handles it like an old, loyal friend. He owns the keytar, literally and figuratively. It’s an instrument that doesn’t seem cool until it’s in his hands.

Finally, the quartet finish what seemed like a 2 and a half hour jam session between friends to a standing ovation. The audience is left humming in their absence. Like a mirage, the best shows always leave you wondering if they even happened. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a Herbie Hancock master class that blew all expectation clear out of the stratosphere.

–       Cayce Hill