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Herbie Hancock, Laurie Anderson, John McLaughlin: Pioneers In Concert



Recent gems from the London music scene – oh yes, they’re still performing

While there are great new artists appearing all the time on the electronic music scene, it’s good to see many of the real pioneers still active.

If you don’t pay attention to these artists and their ground-breaking albums and tracks of the ’70s and ’80s, how do you know which musical ideas are truly new and which are picking up on much earlier innovations? In London three legendary names appeared recently, either with new albums or presenting samplers from their careers to date. 

Laurie Anderson helped popularise the vocoder in the early 1980s and integrated electronic music with performance art and graphics.

Herbie Hancock played with jazz pioneer Miles Davis in the 1960s, but made innovations of his own in the 1970s with analog synthesizers, and again in the 1980s with digital instruments and vocoders.

John McLaughlin shone in the London jazz scene of the 1960s, but moving to the USA he quickly picked up an influence from Eastern music as well as innovating with guitar synthesizers and the Synclavier.

Anderson and Hancock were performing at London’s Barbican Centre, long a home for serious music of all kinds. McLaughlin appeared at a more rock-oriented venue, the Hammersmith Odeon (it hasn’t actually been called that for years, but traditionally booked for the climax of any UK tour, it gave its name to Motorhead’s classic live album “No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith”).

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock’s show at the Barbican saw him backed by a four-piece band of bass, guitar, drums, and trumpet. Of course his earliest work was on piano. Currently he favours an Italian-made Fazioli, which to me sounded richer than a similar Yamaha, maybe brighter than a typical Bosendorfer – but that would all depend on how it was being amplified.

In the 1970s Hancock (literally) surrounded himself with synth keyboards, first the monophonic ARP Odyssey and 2600 and the MiniMoog, later Oberheim and Prophet polyphonics. The Hohner Clavinet added a strong funky sound – Stevie Wonder was playing one around the same time. 

Hancock’s popular tracks from the period include hit single “Chameleon” off the Headhunters album. It opens with a synth bass sequence over which woodwind player Bennie Maupin’s melody and then various improvisations appear, and this still acts as his encore piece. During this period his album sleeves such as that for Thrust (two albums later) became increasingly psychedelic.

A little later Hancock started to experiment with vocoders, since as he admits he’s no singer, and worked with other musicians to create a strong electro-pop sound. The single “Rockit” had a huge impact on MTV, virtually inventing the hip-hop style, but it was the track “I Thought It Was You” that has the most intelligible vocoder vocal. Hancock used the Sennheiser VSM201 Vocoder, a much more sophisticated piece of studio equipment than other models of the time.

For both these jobs, synthesizer sounds and vocoding, Hancock now uses a Korg Kronos keyboard (earlier he’d used the Korg OASYS). His set at the Barbican opened with rain sounds, swirling loops, and descending ring modulator crashes. The Kronos also contributed brassy sounds and bending lead synths before helping to create a long, chatty improvised vocoder passage.

For the encore Hancock picks up a Roland AX-Synth keytar, while trumpeter Terence Blanchard (fresh from composing the soundtrack for 2022’s movie “The Woman King”) fills in on another Kronos. Both guitarist Lionel Loueke and bassist James Genus had earlier solos using loopers, pitch shifters, and ring modulator effects.

It’s an endlessly entertaining set covering music from the Headhunters band lineup in the 1970s to a piece composed by the recently passed Wayne Shorter, to frenetic right-hand improvisation verging on free jazz territory.

At the age of 83, Hancock (who’s now the elder statesman of jazz keyboards, given the passing of Joe Zawinul, George Duke, and Chick Corea) shows no sign of slowing down, and YouTube has extensive clips from all periods of his work.

Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson’s show at the Barbican was somewhat more sedate, though it did incorporate what was more or less a jazz backing group.

Laurie Anderson press photo by Stephanie Diani

Anderson came to prominence in the 1970s in the New York performance art scene, having earlier trained as a violinist. Her free-form shows including some standing on blocks of ice, and she only stopped when they melted.

She painted, wrote poems, and was an early supporter and friend of minimalist composer Philip Glass.

Her breakthrough came in 1981 when she signed a multi-album deal with a major label, and (probably to everyone’s surprise) found herself with an international hit single, “O Superman.” This has a repeated staccato voice under (more or less intelligible) vocals, all created using a Roland VP330+ Vocoder keyboard. 

The vocoder wasn’t a complete novelty at the time, having featured on Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” in 1974 and ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” in 1977, but Anderson’s lyrics touched a nerve with a public tired of political manipulation and disasters such as the Iran hostage crisis.

Little added arpeggios were very reminiscent of the Philip Glass style. Her national TV appearances at the time, like those of synthesist Suzanne Ciani, helped bring electronic sound sources to the attention of millions.

“O Superman” from Anderson’s debut album “Big Science” appeared around the middle of the Barbican show titled “Let X=X,” but there was no sign of her early vocoder technology. Instead she had a stripped-down setup including a couple of tablets (and she currently plays a Steinberger headless violin, often strummed ukulele-style).

Her band punctuated and supported pieces with jazz phrasings and more or less up-tempo, positive-sounding rhythms. Some of the imagery came from her 2015 installation “Habeas Corpus,” and as ever she often moved to incorporate herself into the projected images. 

Despite her many observations on society’s dangers, and the tragic passing of Lou Reed who she had married in 2008, Anderson’s message – if any – is a largely positive one. She ended the performance by leading the audience in a short set of Tai Chi exercises, which at the age of 76 she values greatly – an unusual sight for a classical concert hall if ever I’ve seen one.

John McLaughlin   

John McLaughlin was born in the North of England and started his career playing jazz guitar sessions in London. Offered some sessions in the USA, he moved over permanently and soon found himself working with trumpeter Miles Davis and other luminaries. (McGlauphlin’s playing is a major part of the sound of Miles’ Bitches Brew, the album that started fusion.)

At the same time he became interested in Eastern religions (as did The Beatles, Carlos Santana, and others at the time). Adopting the name Mahavishnu in 1971, he launched The Mahavishnu Orchestra, playing a particularly complex version of the developing jazz-rock fusion style.

The Mahavishnu albums remain legendary, and they incorporated virtuoso players such as Jan Hammer on MiniMoog and other keyboards, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, and Billy Cobham on drums. All the albums are worth hearing, if you haven’t already.

McLaughlin continued experimenting, interfacing his guitar to six MiniMoogs and later to the NED Synclavier digital synthesizer.

McLaughlin’s interest in Eastern styles became more prominent though, and he launched Shakti, with himself mostly on acoustic guitar and a backing group of sitar, violin, and tablas. This meant departing slightly from Western tunings, scales, and musical forms, though the music remained approachable and exciting. 

The London performance comprised a 50-year relaunch for Shakti with a new album This Moment and McLaughlin playing electric rather than acoustic guitar. He plays mainly PRS electrics and Gibson acoustics, often with MIDI pickups.

Now instead of a shruti box (Indian drone instrument) he uses a laptop, which also provides ambient processing to his mostly clean guitar sounds. But he does still play sitting cross-legged on stage, so a balcony view is often best.

At 81 years old McLaughlin’s dexterity has not decreased in the slightest, the fast passages providing a baffling array of bar lengths and time signatures. But a slow lyrical piece “Lotus Feet” from the 1976 album Inner Worlds remains a favourite, as do other electronically-influenced tracks from the album, which found McLaughlin at his most experimental.

In their different ways, all three shows offered performers who had innovated in the past still able to fascinate an audience including many much younger listeners.

Whatever forms of music you’re interested in right now, make sure to trace their influences backwards in time, where you’re sure to find some astonishing and entrancing music.

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