Herbie Hancock & Lang Lang: breaking musical barriers

[28 July 2009]

By Howard Reich

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The walls separating jazz, classical and pop music have been weakening for years, but they’re about to be dealt another blow.

For when a revered jazz musician partners with a star of classical music in an openly populist program, the ghetto-izing of our musical culture faces another setback.

That’s precisely what jazz icon Herbie Hancock and classical phenom Lang Lang had in mind when they conceived their joint world tour, making its American premiere Tuesday night at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill. Playing perhaps the most celebrated crossover work of all time, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” as well as jazz solos and modernist classical pieces, the concert seems as much a cultural manifesto as a musical evening.

“The fact of the matter is that boundaries in descriptions of musical genres really create limitations,” says Hancock. “Music itself has no boundaries.”

Adds Lang Lang: “For me and Herbie, it’s a very meaningful tour. Hopefully this will open new doors to the music world in general.”

Granted, there’s an obvious commercial strategy behind any marquee that spotlights artists of Hancock’s and Lang Lang’s celebrity. But considering the stylistic breadth and musical depth of the program — which includes Ralph Vaughan Willliams’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, a four-hand arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite and solo improvisations from each artist — this could be much more than a box-office bonanza. The repertoire and the unorthodox approach have been fashioned to challenge listeners, as well as entertain them.

“As I’ve often joked,” says the venture’s conductor, John Axelrod, “on this project, I’m Han Solo, Herbie is Yoda and Lang Lang is Luke Skywalker, who’s going to save the universe.”

Maybe not the entire universe, as the “Star Wars” characters did, but certainly these musicians are bent on rescuing jazz and classical music from increasing marginalization on radio, TV and elsewhere in the pop-culture marketplace. By featuring two huge names, each delving into the other’s musical world, the project stands to lure listeners from both camps, as well as curiosity seekers wondering if a musical train wreck might occur.

The idea is “to bring new audiences to classical and jazz,” says Lang Lang, “because, especially in the U.S. ... you don’t have (much music instruction) in the public school system.

“But sometimes for classical or jazz, people do need to have some kind of a basic lesson before they start.”

And though no single concert tour can hope to educate a generation of listeners about oft-complex music, the Hancock-Lang Lang enterprise at least stands to shine the light of their fame on it.

Not that the pianists envisioned anything quite so grand when they were invited to perform a truncated, six-minute version of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the 50th Grammy Awards telecast in 2008. (That night, Hancock won album of the year for “River: The Joni Letters.”) But the media attention that the odd-couple pairing generated, as well as the personal chemistry the two pianists quickly established, made the idea of expanding the repertoire for a world tour enticing to both artists.

“About two weeks after the Grammys, I saw Lang Lang (perform) again, at Disney Hall in L.A.,” recalls Hancock, who lives in that city. “I met Lang Lang backstage, and he invited us out for Chinese food. Disney Hall is near Chinatown. We went there, and I could kind of see things seemed to be going somewhere.

“Part of it was a light going off in my own head; part of it was that Lang Lang and I really hit it off right away, like kindred spirits, so to speak.

“And I was also thinking about what at this point in my life is a prime directive, and that is to utilize the mentoring kind of relationship. ... Lang Lang has only been on the planet 27 years, and I’ve been on the planet 69 years, and I’ve learned a lot of things during that time.”

Determined to share them with a young pianist he considers “a rare find,” Hancock was as eager as Lang Lang to build upon their Grammy-night experiment.

The project, however, has been challenging to each.

Hancock, a native Chicagoan who made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 playing Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto, hadn’t wrestled with a classical work since he was in his early 20s, he says.

Instead, he built a genre-defying career, achieving broad fame with melodically seductive originals such as “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island”; playing a pivotal role in Miles Davis’ second great quintet in the mid-1960s; and scoring a hit dance single with “Rockit,” from his “Future Shock” album of 1983.

Chinese-born Lang Lang started playing classical piano at age 3, won his first piano competition two years later and became a phenomenon 10 years ago, when he substituted for Andre Watts playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the CSO at Ravinia. Performances at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing last year and other high-profile events have made him about the closest thing to a household name in classical music, but until this project, he never had improvised a note of jazz, he says.

Each pianist has been on a steep learning curve, Hancock trying to master intricate classical scores, Lang Lang plunging into an art form where few classical pianists dare to go — jazz improvisation.

“I guess, in a way, we’re both encouraging each other not to be afraid,” says Hancock.

Holding it all together is conductor Axelrod, who notes distinctions and parallels between the two musical languages.

“Classical music is all about security — security in the notes, security in the timing, security in the union rules,” says Axelrod. “And jazz is all about freedom.

“But jazz and classical, really, they’re not so far apart, they’re not so different. There’s a great deal of chamber music in both. We just want to strike a little bit more of a balance between them.”

Though all three musicians report enthusiastic audience response, critical reaction has been divided.

Reuters, covering the tour’s start earlier this month at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, reported “one could hear a pin drop” when the pianists began to play, the audience “mesmerized.”

After a subsequent concert in Royal Albert Hall in London, however, Ivan Hewett wrote in the Daily Telegraph that while the Vaughan Williams was “really effective,” the “Rhapsody” was “souped up.” Jack Massarik in the Evening Standard found the performance “high spirited.”

Whether the project will live on after the summer tour, which ends at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles next month, remains to be decided. A Hancock-Lang Lang recording of this music, or repertoire like it, seems a distinct possibility, though formal discussions haven’t begun, say the pianists.

The larger question, though, is whether an unusual outing such as this can alter audience perceptions about jazz and classical music, and whether it can help each to be heard in the din of musical America in the 21st century.

“Very often, classical music gets unfairly judged by the audience,” says conductor Axelrod. “It’s often separated from the audience by the ivory tower, by its traditions. ... We’re trying to break (that) down.”

It may not be easy, but it seems a goal worth pursuing.

“I am very optimistic about it,” says Lang Lang.

“I think when you hear great musicians playing, they break the walls.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/108992-herbie-hancock-lang-lang-breaking-musical-barriers/