Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock, Barbican, London, 19-11-08

"Jazz is the last refuge of the untalented. Jazz musicians enjoy themselves more than anyone listening to them does"

Those are the words of Steve Coogan, playing Mancunian outsider genius, musical pioneer and all round jazz-hater Tony Wilson, as spoken in the film 24 Hour Party People. I laughed at the line in the cinema and laugh each time I see the film – I remain impossible to offend in regard to my love of jazz. I see how other people perceive it and I understand their misgivings. It's music for people who are only interested in their own self-importance, their own ability to show off their musicianship. Yet jazz is a paradox. You can't get people into it in the same way you can rock music yet last night, while surveying the audience at the Barbican, I saw swathes of potential converts; people who had agreed to accompany a parent or partner to see one of the few true legends of the genre left. You could spot these people a mile off. Indeed, the young couple seated next to me were prime candidates. He, with geek glasses and Dazed and Confused threads; she with a bored look on her face rested her head on his shoulder looking for all the world as if she'd rather be in a Shoreditch bar. As the gig moved forward she opened her eyes and found herself unable to be unimpressed by the aural, visceral, sounds battering her ears.

My fellow gig-goers always catch the eye – the crowd was comfortably middle class, mostly middle-aged and, interestingly, the proportion of black concertgoers was higher than, say, when I saw James Brown a few years ago. Jazz is perhaps the greatest untouched art form of the 21st century – by which I mean it exists outside of the mainstream charts and radio almost in entirety. It's a perfect example of a genre only available to those 'in the know' but at the same time remains so varied that it's never inaccessible to those with open ears. The artist I saw, Herbie Hancock, can be defined in much the same terms. He remains an icon of unreachable cool for jazz lovers but is perhaps the artist who has gained the most commercial success of any of his peers. He can work with Miles; write with Wayne Shorter; effectively invent jazz fusion with his band The Headhunters; have a big hit record, Rockit, with its iconic video still played on MTV to this day; provide the crucial sample for 90s dance classic Groove is in the Heart; create 21st century dance music with album Future2Future and finally, last year, create a flawless set of Joni Mitchell covers with River: The Joni Letters. The latter album became only the second jazz album to ever win the Album of the Year Grammy (the first being Getz/Gilberto in 1965).

Surely he's the biggest jazz crossover artist of all time. And with that reverence well and truly in place he strode out onto the stage last night with his current sextet - Terence Blanchard, James Genus, Lionel Loueke, Gregoire Maret and Kendrick Scott. I didn't think the night was enhanced much by Maret – a Swiss harmonica player – but I appreciated the invention and bravery in putting him in the band. Still, there's a reason why the harmonica is not often used in jazz; it doesn't fit! Aside from that small matter it was a truly incredible night of hard, funky, experimental and, sometimes, delicate playing. The complaint most often directed at jazz is in regard to its perceived self-indulgence. On the contrary, if you understand it you can see that the music is ultimately selfless – that the players are stepping aside constantly, while keeping the groove going at all times, to allow the others to shine. In rock music soloing is seen as the perfect time to make an exit for the bar; in jazz it's not only a pre-requisite but virtuosity is greeted with appreciation and love from both the audience and the band members. The musicians last night were constantly smiling at each other, applauding each other, appreciating each other. You don't get that when a rock drum solo begins, you only get the guitarist nipping off for a smoke rolling his eyes. It's the ultimate form of collaborative music as the connection between those on stage verges on ESP at times.

So much so in fact that when I found myself watching the masterful Kendrick Scott on drums and the lumbering, genial, James Genus on bass I forgot the master was on stage at all. It proved that, aside from his own playing, Hancock's greatest gifts are of composer and arranger. He holds everything together while almost never making himself the centre of the show. That's what jazz is – rather than being the cliché of self-indulgence that detractors claim it is most often self-sacrificing. A remarkable section of the show was the solo spot by West African guitarist Loueke, who created sounds with his mouth, voice, guitar and an effects rack that had the assembled crowd gasping in disbelief. This was followed by a lengthy, thrilling, take on perhaps Hancock's most famous jazz composition, Cantaloupe Island. Finally, for the encore, out he came to take stage centre playing a gleaming white keytar. The night itself had taken on an almost mythic significance, as the music swirled around my food-poisoned being. Yes, even with a nasty bout of illness, which I contained, somehow, until after the show, bringing me to my knees it was an unforgettable three hour show in the company of an ageless 68 year old and his band whose energy powered me on from first minute to last.