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Herbie Hancock: One World, One Music

By Published: June 21, 2010
The world today is in big trouble. We might think that we have learned our lesson and opted for togetherness—after all, centuries of wars, misunderstanding, miscommunication and misinterpretation have brought nothing of value to the human race. Today we are told to frown upon our neighbors across the border; yesterday, neighbors from all over the world were building up countries, stone-by-stone. Paraphrasing Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler, "We all are from everywhere," so what's the big deal? Piano icon Herbie Hancock's The Imagine Project (Verve, 2010) may hold one of the most beautiful answers ever expressed in musical form.

Speaking with Hancock is, in itself, a fulfilling experience. It's easy to focus on when he played with another icon—trumpeter Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
—at a very young age, and the legend that the pianist was soon to become. But the intensity with which Hancock describes the process of recording The Imagine Project is overwhelming. His humanity is almost as astonishing as his music—and, given the chance to combine the two, Hancock's artistry once again demonstrates why he is one of jazz music's most creative and groundbreaking artists, surprising the soul yet again.

This is an album about us. It doesn't judge color, accent, location, roots or dreams. It doesn't ask for a passport, and it doesn't threaten your home. It takes you as you are, and celebrates your difference. This is a global musical journey, one that sought to unite those who have forgotten to remember from whence we came. The Imagine Project is the excuse that many needed to open their hearts to the world. Recorded in different countries, and with guests including Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
, Seal, Pink, Juanes, Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
, Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
bass, electric
, The Chieftains, Los Lobos, Oumou Sangare, James Morrison, John Legend, Konono No 1 and Anoushka Shankar, this is a project for the soul—an expedition of rhythm and lyrics, and a necessary combination of songs and talent that Hancock and producer Larry Klein have solidified in the studio. Hancock will take the project around the world, touring it over the summer of 2010.

Different sounds, different cultures, different heartbeats, one target: you. The rest is pure Hancock, at his very best.

All About Jazz: What's behind The Imagine Project ?

Herbie Hancock: Well, I first started to think about why would I want to put out another CD. If it doesn't serve a purpose, why do it? So I said, "Okay, I want to do something that addresses some important issue of the day," and the first thing that I started thinking about was the thing that [matters] to most Americans, and that is the economic crisis; what that thought led to was that, for the first time, the average American was faced with an economic globalization. Which I don't think we had a conscious relationship with before. But this time it became very obvious that when the banks failed here, that screwed up the banks and the economics of the rest of the world. So I started thinking about globalization; that this is the future, that is already here. And that it can either be something that's of forward motion, or it can be something that moves humanity backwards—a tool for control.

And my feeling is that rather than sit around and complain that the moral powerful forces are going to screw this up and make it bad for the little guy, and take advantage of the little guy—that the rich is going to get richer and the poor is going to get poorer—instead of sitting around complaining that we have no power to do anything about it, my belief is that it is absolutely necessary for the average human being to become proactive in creating the kind of globalization that we want our children and our children's children to experience. So this record is an attempt for me to show a path for a more ideal kind of globalization, and that is through global collaboration, which is a necessary component for peace. So the record is about peace through global collaboration. And global collaboration can usually be displayed culturally. So the first thing that I realized was that I had to make it a global record, and in doing so, ideally record in various countries, to get the flavors of those countries.

This is a way of respecting other cultures outside of our own. So that's one of the components—respecting cultures outside of our own. Learning from those cultures, embracing those cultures, and working together with people of various cultures to create something that neither of us could do by ourselves—or that could only be created through this collaborative process. This is what I intended to do with this record, and I also thought about the fact that I already believe that most international music is American music, because you find American music on the charts of various countries throughout the world, so it's had international impact for a very long time.

But that was in English [laughs], and I know why, because even though we make music that is so international, we have this total vision about America; we think that as consumers in America, we make the records for Americans, and then there's these other people that will buy the record. And I didn't want to do that. It's so global, and yet we have nothing doing that in our product. So I said to myself that I didn't want to do that, and I wanted to make that the primary purpose of this record. So that's why I decided that the best way to show respect for someone else's culture is through language, so I decided that there would be multiple languages.

Those primary elements were the foundation for this project. And then, of course, the next thing is, "How do you marry these things together and will they work?" The difficult thing is you can't know how anything is going to sound, or even you can't be really specific about how you are going to put everything together until you just start the process. So for every song, we didn't know beforehand what the final result might be. So it's a very difficult process. This is the hardest record I've ever made. And frankly, after we recorded the first three or four things, maybe five tracks, there were three things I didn't like, and I knew exactly why. I kept playing them in my car, and I would skip through those because I didn't like them. And I had to really think about why I didn't like them.

So we started changing the bass lines, redoing bass lines, and redoing some drums—a lot of modifying certain elements—and we learned a lot about how the rhythmic foundation of various countries is really, really different from how it's expressed in American music. And hey, one of the things that I wanted to do, too—because as an American, knowing that the primary audience would be an American audience and that the issue I was dealing with to begin with, even though it's a global perspective it still came from an American perspective—I started to think about what [being] an American is, and I realized that an American is a Chinese, an Indian, an African, a European, a Japanese, an Iraqi, and so forth..We live in an immigrant country. A huge immigrant country.

So, our ancestors are the rest of the people of the world. And that's what I wanted to do, because we have this issue with immigration now too, and this whole thing about closing up the borders—don't let the immigrants in, we're tightening up belts and putting up fences and buying American, and we have all this unrealistic thing going on—so now all foreigners are some kind of enemy. And it's ridiculous, because that's where we came from. Have we forgotten that if we want to see an immigrant all we have to do is look in the mirror? So these are the things that I was looking at. And in that regard, I wanted the record to not sound foreign, but not lose the foundation of the [various] cultures that are represented on the record. I didn't want it to sound like a world beat record, because I know that world beat doesn't do anything in America. It does in France and in Germany—in some other countries in Europe certainly— but not in America. So that was the biggest challenge: how do I make it not sound foreign, but be foreign at the same time. Well, I think I succeeded.

AAJ: I think so too. My first thought when I listened to the record was that it sounds like a love album for the world.

HH: Oh, thank you! It's a celebration of the beauty of the human spirit. That's what it's about. And it doesn't have borders, you know? At least that's the vision that I wanted to portray, music without borders.

AAJ: The selection of the songs impressed me very much too. Like the song in Portuguese... How did you go from one track to the other, and realized that those were the ones you wanted to record for this specific project?

HH: Well, I started thinking "Okay, what kinds of songs do we have on here"? I did want songs that had to do with peace, songs that had to do with bringing people together, but the word peace seems so huge, and so lofty, it seems that is something that we all want, but it's unattainable, but peace is not just world peace, from the global standpoint; peace can be a challenge between families. It can be a challenge with a husband and wife; it can be a challenge with parents and children or with your neighbors. Ultimately, peace can be a challenge within one's body. We can have conflicted ideas, we can be conflicted about what we want to do, what we want to be, one part that says do this, and the other says do that...we have these challenges that are pulling at us all the time, it's part of being a human being, so I didn't want to restrict it to just one view of peace. So I was very open to various expressions of what that is, and the problems that challenge peaceful resolutions. So this time, I got together with the artists and I got into discussions about what the record was about, and what I did want.

I had this big thing about challenges towards peace, and how they could be expressed, so that's how a song like "Tempo De Amor," an old song co-written by Vinicius De Moraes, made it to the record. It has interesting lyrics. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there wasn't no wars, and no this and no that? So that everybody can be happy...And then it says "no, it'd be horrible!" [laughs], because you can't know peace unless you experienced those conflicts, you can't know happiness unless you experienced sadness and struggle; you can't know love unless you experienced pain; that's the truth. And that's what I wanted to prevail above it. The truth of what already is, and at the same time, the truth that we hope exists within the struggle.

AAJ: Being originally from Spain, it caught me off guard to find a song, "La Tierra," sung in Spanish. It made my day.

HH: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah...the song with Juanes. When I first heard "La Tierra" it was on YouTube, a performance that Juanes did in Cuba, and in front of more than a million people. So I saw this video and he is singing this song, and on a big banner it could be read "Paz sin fronteras" [Peace without borders].

So as soon as I saw that, I thought, "Perfect, these are already thinking this way," you know? We were fortunate enough to be able to get a hold of Juanes, and when we explained what the purpose of the record was about, he was so happy to be a part of it, because this is the way that he believes also. And because he wrote that song, it made it a lot easier, he didn't have to learn a new song or anything. You would know that the lyrics to that song sound more nationalistic. Originally we were going to have some of the lyrics in English as well as in Spanish, but by the time we did all the recording we had very little time to put the English things together, and he had very little time to work on the pronunciation, so we never could get any of it to where it made sense, switching languages and so forth, and he sounded so much more comfortable in Spanish. So we just let it as it was. We were going to say things like "respect your race," but I don't think the Spanish for "Raza" means the same as it does in English in that sense, does it? I mean, I know it's the word for race, but...

AAJ: You are exactly right. We don't see it the same way.

HH: That's right, it's something that's bigger than that, , it's not so narrow as it sounds in English.

AAJ: No, to us, that word means more like your whole country or everybody that's like you; in our case, if you speak Spanish that's your own race, like your family. It's your own family.

HH: Exactly, like family, which is great. That's why the song says, "Respect your mother, the woman that gave birth to you," and all of those things; I thought they were great, so the lyrics are more uplifting, I think.

AAJ: And what was the process of coming up with all these different musicians for the album, people from different countries?

HH: We sat down and started to do research. Most of that research was done by Larry Klein, the producer. And some of the suggestions were from the executive producer, Adam Mintz. Céu, from Brazil, works with his management company, she's one of their artists, and so is Dave Matthews. Dave and I, we're friends, and Dave was supposed to be on my record Possibilities (Hear Music, 2005), but we never could work out the schedule, and we were able to have him on this record. The reason he recorded a different piece is that we recorded it, and he was writing lyrics, listening to the playback, sitting in the corner, trying to write the lyrics. We finally finished the recording, all in one day.

Months later, we heard that he hated the song [laughs]! And after we had mostly mixed it and did some corrections and things to it, he finally put together another song, which he didn't write, a The Beatles

The Beatles
The Beatles

song, and it's "Tomorrow Never Knows." It's completely differed from the piece that he had worked on before, this one's a more psychedelic piece, but we had nothing else on the record like that. So I was like, "This is great, there's nothing else that sounds like this," and I wanted everything to be different from everything else, so the song adds to the dimension of what was not covered by the other pieces.

AAJ: One of my favorite tracks is "A Change is Gonna Come," with James Morrison.

HH: Oh yeah...he did such a great job. You know, when we did that, he was in England and we made a track here in America, just piano, bass and drums. And because I didn't know how he was going to sing it, we already had the original version that Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke
1931 - 1964
did, so we made a very basic kind of track for him to sing over, and then we sent the track over the internet. They got it in the studio, he recorded it that day and then they sent it back over the internet that night. We got it, and man, we heard the vocal and it worked fine...but Larry Klein saw that maybe, now that we had the vocal, we could redo the track and open up the structure, so that it's not just a basic track and it has its own dimension to it. And I'm thinking "Hmmm...he sounds like a soul singer from Detroit!" [laughs] And if we open it up, is that gonna work? And it did, and I think it just gives the whole thing a whole kind of dimension that didn't have the other way. And the end of that piece is pretty far out [laughs].

That's the concept of the lyrics. The lyrics say that a change is gonna come...Well, that's what I wanted to do, to detect the idea of that change coming, and the band is getting more modern and more open and more like painting a landscape, you know? And I think it works. And we found the perfect drummer and the perfect bassist. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta
, so tasteful! And Tal Wilkenfeld, the bassist on that track, from Australia, only 26 years old. So talented! She's got this command of the instrument and a beautiful, musical sense. And she's full of creative ideas; They're actually going to be in the touring band for this record.

AAJ: The first track of the album, "Imagine"—with the intro of Seal, Pink and yourself—and then the rest that comes after that, with India.Arie and everything else, I thought it was gorgeous.

HH: Ah, thank you. Pink and Seal sounded perfect for that intro. The sound that she gets and the sound that he gets, really worked; just the right elements...And then the rhythm comes in...and the rhythm section is a group from the Congo named Konono No 1, so we hear that, along with regular bass and regular drums, and then India, of course, comes in, and she puts her own signature on the lyrics. I never heard "Imagine" like that. I was very fortunate to be able to get very good people for that track too, like Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
bass, electric
, Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke

Then we had an afterthought of recording something else with Pink and Seal, and during the process, at the very end—because I had already played on the track—he was singing more complicated parts than what I had already played, so in a way they were disappointed, because they wanted to sing live with me. So finally, at the end, we were like, "How about we just make some introduction to "Imagine" and do it right?" And they said "Great!" So we did that in the studio, but my favorite piano brand, Fazioli—it's an Italian piano, and I think they make the finest pianos in the world—they didn't have one at the studio, so it didn't quite have the sound that I wanted. Afterwards, I went back and recorded it again in my own studio with my own piano, because I knew the sound of my piano was so much better. So that's what we wound up with. And we just spliced it together with the rhythm part of "Imagine," which I think worked very well.

AAJ: How was it to work with Larry Klein?

HH: It was great to work with Larry. He and I really saw eye-to-eye on the meaning and purpose of doing this project. When I explained it to him, he really wanted to be a part of it. He's a very broad-based producer, and he's produced a lot of singers. I haven't been on a lot of records with singers; in recent years I have been, but not so much before that; most of my records have been instrumental. So that was a plus for me. He's a lot more conscious of the lyrics than I am, although I'm learning that, because my last few records have been with singers, and I see the importance of it. This time I'm a lot more conscious of the meaning of the words when I'm playing, and to have that kind of planted in my ear. Also he's worked with musicians from around the world and his taste is very broad. So he did a lot of research in finding musicians from Congo and Mali.

He's the one that did the research to find these people, but what's interesting is that, at the same time he was getting this information together, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times about the new music of Mali, and that a lot of the newer musicians were influenced by American music—by the blues in particular, and R&B. The roots of American music started in Africa, and then it was created from the African-American experience, like an answer to a flavor, and then it evolved into various forms, with various influences, from blues to jazz, or rock n' roll. And then it went all the way back to Mali. So it's really interesting how that interconnectivity can manifest.

Selected Discography

Herbie Hancock, The Imagine Project (Verve, 2010)

Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007)

Herbie Hancock, Possibilities (Hear Music, 2005)

Herbie Hancock, Directions in Music: Celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Verve, 2002)

Herbie Hancock, Future2Future (Transparent, 2001)

Herbie Hancock, Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998)

Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter, 1 + 1 (Verve, 1997)

Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)

Herbie Hancock, Dis Is Da Drum (Verve/Mercury, 1994)

Herbie Hancock, Perfect Machine (Columbia, 1988)

Herbie Hancock, Round Midnight (Columbia, 1986)

Herbie Hancock, Future Shock (Columbia, 1983)

Herbie Hancock, Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980)

Herbie Hancock, VSOP: Live Under the Sky (Columbia, 1979)

Herbie Hancock, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea (Columbia, 1978)

Herbie Hancock, Thrust (Columbia, 1974)

Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973)

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969)

Herbie Hancock, Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968)

Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967)

Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965)

Miles Davis, Four and More (Columbia, 1964)

Miles Davis, Seven Steps to Heaven (Columbia, 1963)

Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1963)

Herbie Hancock, Takin' Off (Blue Note, 1962)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Cees van de Ven

Page 2: Hans Speekenbrink

Page 3: Courtesy of 'StacheMedia

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