Published Jul 01, 2018Ottawa, like a lot of Ontario cities, was expected to reach record-breaking highs this Canada Day long weekend. With the possibility of the nation capital's official festivities being postponed or cut short — if they happened at all — due to Sunday's supposed extreme heat, it was hard not to worry that Herbie Hancock's headlining set at the Ottawa Jazz Festival the night before could get cancelled, too.
But at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday night, the 78-year-old jazz legend walked onto the stage, flanked by his three-piece backing band — comprised of Saturday Night Live bassist James Genus, West African guitar god Lionel Loueke, and R&B and hip-hop session staple Trevor Lawrence Jr. — with a swagger in his step. He made no mention of the gruelling temperatures trying the crowd's patience while soaking their T-shirts. Instead, he seemed affable and alert, joking with the audience and looking at the band's brief set list before ripping it off his piano and throwing it away.
"I'm gonna shut up," he said five minutes into engaging with the crowd. "Strap in and buckle up your seat belts."
What followed was a jazz fusion odyssey that, much like the extended overture that started the evening, traveled through time and space, drawing from classics like Head Hunters and Thrust, the modal jazz of his youth and the tones of today.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Hancock and his crew concocted space-age ambient soundscapes with so much flange and phaser that the audience barely noticed the band stumble into the middle of "Chameleon" for a few seconds near the end. (It would make its welcome return later on in the night.)
"We never know exactly what we're going to do, but we like it that way," Hancock told the crowd in between songs. "We like living on the edge."
That they did, as Hancock and his band dolled out sinewy solos and mind-melting modulations, stretching songs like "Actual Proof," the vocoder-assisted "Come Running Into Me" and standard "Cantaloupe Island" sometimes three-to-four times past their original runtimes.
As families packed up their Powerades, children and camping chairs, Hancock and his band came back on stage for an encore, sliding into a proper rendition of "Chameleon" as lightning lashed the darkness above them.
Festivalgoers split their attention between the sky and the band, trying to enjoy the extended jam while worrying it could get called off at any moment.
Thankfully, the band made it through, getting one of the biggest cheers of the night at song's end when Hancock, keytar in hand, scrunched up his face and jumped into the air, landing with one last tickle of the ivories before calling it a night and leaving the audience wondering (as they did throughout the night) how he did that.