Herbie Hancock’s grand experiment in electronic gadgetry falters

While Herbie Hancock looked sharp in the colorful paisley and polka dot shirt he wore Sunday at the Lied Center, a white lab coat might have been more appropriate attire.

An audience of about 1,500 witnessed the legendary musician assume the role of a mad scientist as he engaged in 90 minutes of experimental music, with mixed results.

Almost every phase of Hancock’s career has been characterized by startling innovations. “Watermelon Man,” a song from his 1962 debut album, presaged funk. As a member of Miles Davis’ band and as a solo artist, Hancock gave voice to liberation in the 1960s. He became a disco pioneer in the 1970s. The 1983 hit “Rockit” was at the vanguard of the hip-hop movement. “River: The Joni Letters,” one of his recent collaborations with pop stars, won album of the year at the 2008 Grammy Awards.

One of the most important and influential musicians of the last 50 years, Hancock truly deserves to be considered a genius. That’s why Sunday’s concert was so disappointing. On his first solo tour of America, Hancock was hindered by his otherwise commendable quest for groundbreaking explorations.

“The problem with playing solo piano as an improviser is that you can do whatever you want to do,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.”

That proved fruitful, somewhat. Hancock’s first selection, a captivating rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” performed entirely on grand piano, demonstrated that Hancock’s improvisational brilliance is fully intact. Several of the wild tangents he pursued sounded like the essential ingredients for equally memorable new compositions.

Things became dicey on “Dolphin Dance.” After unexpectedly transforming the beautiful piece into tense incidental music that resembled his 1974 soundtrack for “Death Wish,” Hancock began twiddling with a large array of gadgets and synthesizers. He smiled gleefully as he introduced each new loop and prerecorded backing track, but these elements became increasingly intrusive.

The overtly artificial electronic elements occasionally overwhelmed Hancock’s piano work on “Sonrisa” and “Cantaloupe Island.” Hancock seemed intent on contrasting his inherently warm playing with a sterile background. It didn’t work. Pat Metheny’s recent “Orchestrion” project, a similarly ambitious one-man-band concept, was substantially more successful.

The concert closed with Hancock manning a Roland Ax-Synth keytar on a playful rendition of “Rockit.” While it’s an intriguing novelty, watching Hancock fiddle with a keytar is akin to watching a great visual artist play with fingerpaint.