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Thor Polson Quartet puts Herbie Hancock in the spotlight

Jazz pianist Thor Polson considers Herbie Hancock one of the most influential artists of the last 60 or so years.

“His background includes playing — and mastering — classical as well as other kinds of music,” Polson says. “He’s innovative and eclectic.”

So a showcase of Hancock’s material can’t help but heighten interest in the musician’s work.

Polson and his band — sax player Steve Davidson, percussionist Theresa McCoy, and bassist Dave Miller — will present a tribute to Hancock at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, at La Baguette Music Cafe, 340 A St., Ashland. Admission is $15 at the door.

Polson’s own jazz sensibilities and classical training promise to open the performance to some unusual possibilities.

He and his bandmates will take listeners to places only hinted at by the set list, which includes “Joanna’s Theme,” from the 1982 “Death Wish II” soundtrack; “Maiden Voyage,” which, believe it not, Hancock wrote for a men’s cologne commercial; “Little One,” an abstract piece with a jazz-waltz feel; and “Jessica” — Polson’s favorite — written by Hancock for his daughter.

This concert will consist of two sets of 13 tunes by Hancock, and possibly more, if the audience can coerce Polson and his band into playing them.

One of the most attractive things about the show is audiences will not quite know what to expect, apart from excellence. Polson’s pedigree — and his band’s — are such that their take on Hancock’s material will not leave listeners disappointed.

“I like to keep my performances brief and to the point,” Polson says. “I view each piece as a conversation, with a beginning, a middle and an end.”

From this it’s easy to see how he keeps his selection edgy, yet intriguing to anyone interested in what is possibly the only purely American musical form.

Polson and his bandmates have played venues throughout the Rogue Valley and elsewhere.

In the past, the group has performed tributes to Thelonius Monk and Wayne Shorter.

Hancock’s music is particularly appropriate for Polson, whose philosophy is in alignment with that of Miles Davis.

Davis was once quoted as saying, “I never play ballads because I love to play ballads.” Meaning he forever challenged himself to move on.

Hancock started playing with Davis in the ‘60s, and later with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell (check out Herbie’s album “River: The Joni Letters”), Howard Jones and others.

A master on keyboards, Hancock also is a band leader and composes neoclassical music.

His music is somewhat informed by Nichiren Buddhist chants, which he’s practiced since 1972.

In 2014 he was a Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, where he lectured.

Hancock is an advocate of jazz as a force for good in the world, and supports International Jazz Day,to be celebrated April 30 in 2018.

Polson is originally from Kansas City, Missouri, and has been a fan and student of jazz at least since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

He’s studied music all over the country, and he’s lived all over the world, including India, Norway and Austria. Polson also studied ancient Greek and Latin.

His list of regional credits includes studying classical piano with Alexander Tutunov, artist-in-residence at Southern Oregon University, teaching piano at Piano Studios and German and Latin at St. Mary’s School.

Polson spent most of the summer of 2017 indoors transcribing many of the Hancock recordings in his collection.

In Hancock’s 2014 autobiography, “Possibilities,” he is candid about his life and his music, Polson says.

“He paid little attention to the critics. He didn’t care about becoming popular. He said he was going to forge his own path. If they liked it, fine, if not, what could he do about it?

“Davis also completely ignored the critics. I admire that they were just forging ahead and taking music in a new direction.

“Jazz critics aren’t happy unless you’re playing to a crowd of seven at 2 in the morning in a loft in Philadelphia.”

Steve Davidson, left, Dave Miller, Thor Polson and Theresa McCoy team up to showcase music by Herbie Hancock at La Baguette Music Cafe. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]