Gershwin's World (Verve Records)
Herbie Hancock

By Keith Henry Brown

For some time now, Herbie Hancock has had nothing to prove.

One glance at his discography shows it: from his brilliant work on early recordings for Blue Note, (Maiden Voyage, Tak'in Off ) to his stint with one of the most influential bands in music, The Miles Davis Quartet and the classic recordings that ensued (Miles Smiles, Nefertiti) to his forays into fusion, electronic music, and pop, the man has had critical and popular success that is unprecedented.

To be sure, most of his jazz fan base had abandoned him by the time he had his first bona fide pop hit, "Rockit," in 1983. By then, Hancock was appearing on more pop recordings then jazz. It seemed he had sold his sold his soul. In interviews, though, he assured us that his jazz chops were still intact. If so, lately he's been keeping them pretty much under wraps. Aside from the occasional moment here and there, like his former mentor, Miles, he hasn't looked back.

He's no longer essentially a jazz musician anymore than, say, Cassandra Wilson is. His last two studio recordings, The New Standard and 1+1 were disappointments because they were heralded as if a return to form. Instead, they revealed a man who was a shadow of his former self. Case in point: the recent release of the box set, The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions. These recordings reveal a young, vital, searching musician with the skill to realize his ideas.

Gershwin's World, an album of George Gershwin interpretations and the music that inspired them, is a small step in the right direction. This is probably the most ambitious undertaking Hancock has attempted in years, and we are rewarded by it. As usual, we are surrounded by an astounding number of guest stars and fanfare, but unlike other recent releases by the artist, there is real playing underneath it all.

You can hardly go wrong with Gershwin, and Hancock doesn't. Things begin, unexpectedly, with a thunder of drums on the "Overture (Fascinating Rhythm)," which segues into a wonderful "It Ain't Necessarily So" featuring the incomparable James Carter on tenor sax and Kenny Garrett on alto. `The Man I Love" benefits immeasurably from a Joni Mitchell vocal, who proves a formidable jazz singer.

Two cuts the from the album that truly highlight Hancock's gifts are "Lullaby" with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra In G, Second Movement." Here, Hancock's piano solos are informed by the orchestration, making them even more lyrically beautiful than in a modern jazz setting. Other inspired moments include an unorthodox approach on "St. Louis Blues," with Stevie Wonder on piano and harmonica. And Chick Corea contributes mightily to " Blueberry Rhyme" by James P. Johnson.

Throughout this highly entertaining CD, Hancock seems to be doing something with his music we haven't heard in a while: having fun.