Jazz icon Herbie Hancock performed in front of the nearly sold-out four-level crowd at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on March 18, on the campus of the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

Perhaps, no jazz artist could match Hancock’s combination of clout, critical success, and commercial appeal. Hancock played in Miles Davis’ “second great quintet,” won numerous Grammys, and crossed over to pop audiences.

The night was a “dream come true,” said Gene Dobbs Bradford, Jazz St. Louis’ Executive Director, during a dignified introduction. Jazz St. Louis, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting the art of jazz, presented the concert.

Opening the concert, the band launched into “Actual Proof” from Hancock’s 1974 album “Thrust.” Drummer Trevor Lawrence laid down a complex beat, and bassist James Genus played a powerful groove. Guitarist Lionel Loueke played subtle fills rather than join the rhythm section and, like Hancock, seemed quietly content to be a complementary player to Lawrence and Genus for most of the evening.

During this song and for most of the night, Genus was the focal point as the volume and virtuosity of his thundering bass obscured the other three musicians. Although an old song for Hancock, his band reinvigorated it, playing with passion and intensity.

As Hancock introduced his band, he made special mention of Loueke’s colorfully exotic shirt, saying it was from somewhere out in the universe. Hancock saw the wild design as a metaphor for the band. This evening Hancock wanted to reach beyond conventional playing, beyond discovered territory, and into the deep universe of musicality.

The search for a new sonic landscape continued with a mash-up of Loueke’s original composition, “17s,” and Hancock’s breakthrough commercial success “Watermelon Man” from his 1962 debut album, “Takin’ Off.” Again distinguishing himself, Genus played with tremendous dexterity, precision, and, of course, volume. The absence of horns was noticeable although the present musicians played like seasoned professionals.

Hancock had been one of the first jazz artists to embrace synthesizers. In the night’s third song, “Come Running to Me,” from the 1978 “Sunlight” album, Hancock used his vocorder, a synthesis system for reproducing human speech. Neither Hancock’s singing nor the vocorder’s affect was particularly memorable. This odd spectrum of the universe was not worth discovering.

However, guitarist Loueke produced the most enduring moment of the evening. He ran his guitar and vocals through multiple effects units, noticeably stunning the crowd. Sonically, he sounded more akin to a percussive instrument. Loueke’s vocal performance, divergent from conventional singing, garnered the evening’s most honest applause. If Hancock truly aimed to discover uncharted sonic territory rather than run through old hits, Loueke’s solo was the zenith.

Hancock looked and sounded free as he dallied unencumbered behind his black Fazioli, producing the softest part of the show. The peaceful calm drifted to a dull boredom as sleepiness pervaded the crowd. Eyes closed and cell phones opened, but Hancock glided into the title track from his 1965 album “Maiden Voyage,” returning the show to life.

Testing their musical talents, Hancock and his band played a twenty-five minute version of “Cantaloupe Island” from the 1964 “Empyrean Isles” album. The crowd responded enthusiastically to another well-known song.

Known for his experiments in funk and hip-hop, Hancock strapped on his keytar synthesizer to play “Rockit” from the 1983 “Future Shock” album. Lawrence played synthetic drums, which gave a hard edge to the song. Hancock had technical issues with his synthesizer, so although it teased of exotic sounds to come, “Rockit” was aborted before taking full flight.

Hancock closed the show with “Chameleon” from the 1973 “Headhunters” album, culminating an evening of excellent musicianship. Hancock seemed invigorated by playing with elite musicians putting a new signature on old songs. He gazed up the Touhill as if he was looking beyond and into the universe, trying to pull some new sound from out of the galactic abyss or at least searching for a new path to a familiar place.

By Matt Salmi, staff writer for the Current

Grade: B