Last updated: November 17, 2012 2:40 am

Staple moods

A Herbie Hancock showcase; sax with power; dark secrets from Kurt Elling

Herbie Hancock’s Monday night gig at the Royal Festival Hall marked his first solo appearance in the UK. He entered to a prolonged full-house welcome, paused to let it subside, and then pointed to his gadgets and synths. “We’ll come to those later,” he said, as he strode purposefully to his concert grand.

Hancock opened with a dusting of notes and sparse, bitter-sweet harmonies. He firmed up the rhythm, hinted at a riff, and then tugged at the theme of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. Twenty minutes on, he had transformed a jam-session staple into an improvised solo-piano epic of symphonic proportions. Thematic fragments became motifs to be developed, rubato rhythms seethed and surged, there was menace and reverie, romance and a final concert hall flourish.

Hancock’s compositional grasp and sharp musical focus continued with the introduction of the electronics. The rarely played “Sonrisa” switched through African-inflected loops and foot-stomping triggers to a bombastic orchestral score. “Maiden Voyage” came with a squelchy pulse, dawn-of-time synths and industrial sounds. A rhythm track was created on the hoof, there was a fragile all-acoustic ballad and a vocoder-enhanced “Watermelon Man” that, like the crunchy double encore of “Rockit” and “Chameleon”, dripped with beats and wailing synth.

Hancock switched keyboards and triggered samples – he had five laptops to choose from – rampaged over sequenced support and then, unaccompanied, turned optimism to pain by a single finger shift. All was fresh-minted, and invention never flagged – the long set simply whizzed by. But what had begun as a new direction became, by the end, a showcase for the Hancock we know.

Herbie Hancock

Menace and reverie: Herbie Hancock

Tuesday’s gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was also a premiere, though on a somewhat grander scale. Saxophonist Shebaka Hutchings’ Babylon Suite featured the BBC Concert Orchestra, his regular band, The Sons of Kemet, and improvised electronica. His orchestral score, firmly conducted by Keith Lockhart, has real substance, and was easily the evening’s high point.

It opens with a quiet buzz of cellos, whistling electronics bring the orchestra to life, there are slabs of brass and moments of calm, interlocking rhythms and soaring strings. Add in Jason Singh’s abstract electronics, the dramatic blare of Oren Marshall’s tuba and a skittery pulse from two drummers, and there is much to go wrong. Hutchings’ strong writing and occasional band-mate coaxing held it all together, though his centre-point sax solo was under-amplified. A late spot from his unusually configured, world-influenced band confirmed the saxophonist’s power and re­vealed what was missed.

On Wednesday, also at the QEH, Kurt Elling blew the fluff off several generations of pop to reveal dark secrets and adult desires. His repertoire celebrates the song-writers who were based in New York’s Brill building – he gave us a potted history mid-set – and his superbly controlled, wide-ranging tenor exudes an understated yet pleasingly louche confidence.

Elling hit the ground running with a syllable-stretched “Come Fly with Me”, lived every note of “On Broadway” and made “I’m Satisfied” a slacker’s anthem. Highlights were “You Send Me” – the throwaway “honest you do” reverberated with ambiguity – a doo-wop “Lonely Avenue” and several high-octane solos from his terrific band.

Elling invited the first set’s singer, Sheila Jordan, to join him for the encore. She’s now 84 – “born on the same day as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse” she told us – and once they had negotiated the rococo lyrics and sly ad-libbed asides of “Moody’s Mood for Love” – Obama’s victory got a mention – they settled for a slightly ragged, extremely warm-hearted, word-spieling jam.

www.londonjazzfestival.org The London Jazz Festival runs to 18 November

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