‘We Play Life’: Kennedy Center Salutes Hancock, Santana
Posted 12/10/2013

The late critic Whitney Balliett’s notion of jazz being the “the sound of surprise” came into play early on Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C., at the 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors, which paid tribute to pianist-composer Herbie Hancock.

When it came time for a top celebrity to discuss Hancock’s accolade, the conservative political commentator and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly approached the podium. “I know, I’m surprised too,” O’Reilly quipped, before unraveling tongue-in-cheek anecdotes about Hancock’s provocative music and calm demeanor. “Look at him up there with the president and all these brilliant artists. He’s the only one up there who isn’t nervous about what I’m going to say.”

Hancock chuckled at the peculiar situation. He sat in the Kennedy Center Opera House’s presidential box with President Obama, the first lady and the other honorees—pianist-songwriter Billy Joel, guitarist Carlos Santana, opera singer Martina Arroyo and actress Shirley MacLaine.

O’Reilly wasn’t the only surprise during the Hancock tribute. Toward the end of a five-song summation of Hancock’s expansive repertoire, rapper Snoop Dogg graced the stage and guided an ensemble into a freestyle revisit of “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” Us3’s acid-jazz staple, which sampled Hancock’s mid-’60s bebop gem “Cantaloupe Island.” In vintage hip-hop fashion, Snoop goaded the crowd with a familiar refrain—“wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care”—and also slipped in verses from his own “Gin And Juice.”

Illustrations of Hancock’s experiments with hip-hop continued with the spangled mash-up of “Rockit” and “Chameleon,” featuring Beastie Boys’ DJ Mix Master Mike’s turntablism.

Earlier, the tribute gave an explicit taste of Hancock’s formative bop years with a spirited reading of Miles Davis’ “Walkin,’” featuring trumpeter Terence Blanchard and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter exchanging incendiary passages alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland’s propulsive rhythms and Chick Corea’s agile piano accompaniment.

A second all-star combo sparked a combustible rendition of “Watermelon Man,” showcasing Kurt Rosenwinkel’s bluesy guitar asides, Joshua Redman’s honky-tonk tenor-saxophone screams and Aaron Parks’ funky electric-piano filigrees.

On the red carpet before the concert, Redman talked about Hancock’s popularity. “He’s one of the artists who has been able to communicate to a very wide audience and explore the boundaries of jazz and its relationship with other art forms,” he said. “At the same time, he’s always stayed true to his jazz principles.”

The other honorees were also celebrated throughout the evening. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval played the National Anthem, before the soiree feted guitar hero Santana, one of Hancock’s most notable kindred spirits. Hancock played extensively on Santana’s 1980 solo album, The Swing Of Delight. In turn, Santana played on Hancock’s album Monster, from the same year.

“We’re like brothers,” Hancock enthused on the red carpet. “This is my buddy—Carlos Santana! For us to be honored in this way is fantastic!”

Santana was equally ecstatic. He paraphrased wisdom imparted by Davis about the expansiveness of both his and Hancock’s overlapping music. “We don’t let anyone define us and encapsulate us into something limiting with a short ceiling. We’re musicians and we play life,” Santana said.

In yet another six degrees of separation, percussionist Sheila E.—who played in Hancock’s band in the early-’80s and whose father and uncle played in Santana’s band in the early-’70s—was also present at the event. “I didn’t know that they were both being honored,” she said. “I got called to perform for Carlos’ tribute. Then when I heard that Herbie was being honored, I went, ‘Wait a minute! Why aren’t I playing on both tributes?’ I’m so proud and happy for both of them.”

During the Santana tribute finale, Sheila E. captivated on timbales alongside vocalist and organist Steve Winwood with their take on Santana’s Latin-soul classic “Everybody’s Everything.” Blues guitar legend and 2012 Kennedy Center honoree Buddy Guy emphasized Santana’s blues influences with a razor-sharp reading of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” while luminaries such as guitarists Tom Morello and singer Fehr Olvera ripped through “Corazón Espinado,” “Black Magic Woman” and Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va.”

On the red carpet, Blanchard said that Santana and Hancock’s Kennedy Center honors speak to the changing times: “There was a time when this music wouldn’t be recognized in such a fashion. To have this honor happening here on such a grand scale is something that you can’t measure.”

Corea commented, “Herbie and Carlos are from my era and from my kind of musical background. Both of them are dear friends. Herbie is a great representative for our jazz legacy; then matched with Carlos, it’s just a great combination.”

A TV special on the Kennedy Center Honors will air on CBS on Dec. 29.

For more information, go to kennedy-center.org.

John Murph

Kennedy Center Honorees (from left): Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, Carlos Santana, Martina Arroyo and Herbie Hancock (Photo: John Filo)


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