Herbie Hancock: Inspired By the Written Word of a Friend

R.J. DeLuke By

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It's not out of character for me to do something that they don
Herbie HancockIf Herbie Hancock never played another note, or gave the world nothing more for the rest of his life other than electronic pop or dyed-in-the-wool, straight-ahead, VSOP-style jazz—it wouldn't matter. His stature, accomplishments and legacy are secure. But he doesn't do that. Not his nature. Which is one of the reasons why, even among great pianists—and Hancock resides at the zenith of his instrument—he is held in a particularly higher esteem.

The musician who made his bones killin' 'em with unrelenting swing, great sound and unbridled creativity, and then made his home address Mount Olympus with the classic Miles Davis quintet of the mid-to-late 1960s, could have stayed put. But he's always moved on into other areas that touch on rock, pop, funk—all music that he appreciates; music that has been part of a vast American musical landscape. But he continues to explore. He tries to remain fresh.

His latest project is River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007), a tribute to the music of an old friend and colleague, Joni Mitchell. Hancock recorded with Mitchell on her 1979 Asylum album, Mingus, which was done in collaboration with jazz great Charles Mingus, stricken at the time with the Multiple Sclerosis that would take his life before long. Hancock later appeared on Mitchell's 2000 orchestral collection for Reprise, Both Sides Now. Hancock's new project is produced by Mitchell's former collaborator and husband, Larry Klein. It's a docket of almost all Mitchell-penned music, but reworked through different sensibilities.

Hancock is specific that he would not have taken on the project if he couldn't bring his own sensibilities to it, based on his interpretations of the poetic lyrics and the feelings that funneled from there, through his musical mind and heart, and out to the band; and, ultimately, the CD.

It's made for a good year for the iconic folk-rock Mitchell. Her own new album, Shine on Starbuck's Hear Music label, her first after a long hiatus, was released on the same day last month. Mitchell is back forging her brand of hip, poetic music that draws inspiration from sources including jazz. But it's always distinctly Joni Mitchell. She also recently had her art exhibited in New York City and The Fiddle and the Drum, a ballet collaboration between Mitchell and Alberta Ballet's artistic creator Jean Grand-Maître, was broadcast on the Bravo television network. Not a bad year for someone who has long been considered one of the true artists to step out of the much of the noise that made up the "revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s. With the world falling down in the new millennium, the more true art we can get the better.

Hancock works with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Dave Holland and guitarist Lionel Loueke on the album, and there are six vocal numbers, performed by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and Mitchell herself. The result is carefully crafted and sweetly executed. With a conscious effort to stay true to the lyrics, even above the music, it results in a simplified beauty; whimsical at times, and deep in others.


Tina Turner is delicious on "Edith and the Kingpin. She's not Soul Diva here, but adds a full, rich sound that is cushioned sweetly by the band, telling Joni's story with a direct and sensual feel. Perhaps understated for her, she sounds great. Leonard Cohen does a spoken word version of "The Jungle Line, which was all heavy rhythm in its original form. It features only Hancock's piano behind Cohen's spoken word. Hancock is ethereal; Cohen haunting. Duke Ellington's "Solitude and Shorter's "Nefertiti are the only non-Mitchell contributions, numbers that were influential to the songstress over the years. They come the closest to pure jazz, but Hancock is unconcerned whether they sound like jazz or not. He plays music according to his lifestyle, which is open, searching and inclusive, influenced by his longtime study and practice of Buddhism. The broad brush Hancock paints with dips into the same musical and creative paint that his last mentor, Miles, used during his legendary career. Hancock loves change, new challenges, different approaches.

"It's funny because Wayne and I have had a lot of conversations about the state of jazz today and what's happening, he told AAJ a few years back. "We realize that there doesn't seem to be a lot of people looking into new ways of reexamining the conventions that we've grown to accept in the music.

Hancock, 67—"a child piano prodigy from Chicago —doesn't care about what the critics might say, or what fans might say. If he pursues his art and is true to himself, it will be an honest statement and, therefore, valid. And accepted. His fortitude has served him well from his early days with trumpeter Donald Byrd and his 1960s Blue Note records and hits like "Watermelon Man, through his tenure with Miles, into electronics with Headhunters, through the Rockit band and beyond.

Thus the music of River, influenced by Mitchell, is pure Herbie in collaboration with his mates. He's fine with that. Listeners will be too.

He took time out of a busy schedule recently to discuss the new record with All About Jazz:

All About Jazz: Let's start with the new disc. I know you have an association with Joni Mitchell, but what brought you to this album at this point?

Herbie Hancock: The idea of doing a record of Joni Mitchell's music wasn't something that came out of my head. The person who's head of A&R at Verve, we were discussing what I might do for my next record. He said, "Would you consider doing the music of Joni Mitchell? I know how much you respect Joni and admire her and her work. I said, "That's a great idea. I would like to take credit for it, but I can't. [laughs]. It wasn't my idea. But the main point is that it was a good idea.

AAJ: Larry Klein then got involved...

HH: Yeah. That was another suggestion from the head of A&R from Verve. Larry had already done a couple records with them. Madeline Peyroux was one of them. I know Larry Klein. When the suggestion was made that I consider Larry Klein I thought that would be a really great idea. I know Larry is a very bright guy. He's a real thinker. Maybe a better way to state it is: he's a very aware person. Aware culturally, as well as aware of what's happening in the world.


I had worked with Larry before. I used to have a TV show called Coast to Coast (Showtime, 1989-91). I was hosting it. My first guests for the first show that we had included Joni Mitchell and Larry Klein. Wayne Shorter was also on that. And Bobby McFerrin, David Sanborn. I'd see him [Larry] on several occasions, we used to hang out, with Joni. Larry used to be married to Joni Mitchell, as well as work with her. What I found, by working on this project, was that Larry also wrote some songs with Joni. So I thought, what better first person could I have than the ex-husband. [laughs] He knows so much about Joni and her music and the story behind her writing the songs.

AAJ: He helped in the songs you decided to select from that vast repertoire?

HH: Yeah. I really depended on Larry for that, because I was not that familiar with Joni's repertoire. Some of the highlights, but he knew more details about various songs. He made some initial suggestions as songs to look at. We started with some songs, then it grew and grew. Then we started honing in on certain ones.

We tried to have a selection process that was a natural one.

AAJ: The musicians, I know your association with them, Wayne and Dave and everybody else. You chose those guys when other people might have thought that you would have chosen people from the pop world or folk world, something that people assume in Joni's world.

HH: The reason I didn't do that is because I don't have to do that. [laughs] [Pop musicians] might be obvious choices, but then she's already done that. Why would I do the same things she's already done? What made sense to me that could be interesting—my foundation is in jazz and I'm recording it for Verve as my next jazz record. Why not have a context that's more associated with jazz. How would that work? That would be more of an interesting challenge. It would pretty much ensure that we wouldn't be re-inventing the wheel. You try and re-invent the wheel of songs that somebody not only wrote but they played on, and were an important part of the process of the sound of the record, the arrangements. I knew Joni was the source of those arrangements, from knowing her and how she involves herself in the music. She was certainly there to make so many of those decisions about how she wanted to be rendered. For her records.

I wanted to stay away from doing it the way she did it before. Because anybody can do that. Because it's my record, I wanted it to be that way that I can do it. I would think that would be interesting because people will be hearing many songs that they have familiarity with, but in different way or approach.

AAJ: I know you love harmonies and melodies, but you also said the lyrics were very important this time.

HH: My feeling was Joni's songs really stem from the lyrics. She's a poet first. The songs grow out of the poetry. I felt that if I really wanted to do justice to Joni's songs, I have to work from the lyrics first too. That is, in fact, what we did.

It was also an interesting challenge. I wasn't that familiar with the words to Joni's songs, because I wasn't that familiar with the words to any song. It's kind of difficult for jazz musicians to pay attention to the words. Not so much that it's avoidance. That's not what immediately attracts our attention and what draws us into a song. It's more the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythm that has a special function. And the textures that they use in an arrangement, but not the words.

But here, we had a golden opportunity of having a great poet and finally pay attention to the words. I thought that would be not only appropriate, but intriguing and interesting to the musicians who play the music. We went so far as to give copies of the words to everybody in the band before we even recorded the tracks. Then we'd go into the musician's booth and sit down and discuss the meaning of the lyrics. Larry knew the meaning of the lyrics and he and I had many discussions about the meaning of the words before we even got to the point of making the arrangements, much less recorded.


We had those discussions on site, talking about even the environment of the lyrics and the characters that were depicted in the lyrics or in whatever scene it would be; whatever the environment would be for the music. I felt that this would give us not only focus on the words, but give each of us kind of a new source of influence in playing the music. There was something none of us were used to doing in that way. All the musicians loved the idea of discussing the words first and then going out and playing.

AAJ: The musical treatments you gave it jumped from the words through your musical experience and onto the page?

HH: Right. That was it. [chuckles]

AAJ: Interesting vocalists too. What was your thinking? Luciana Souza, of course, is in jazz. Leonard Cohen and Tina Turner I thought were more unusual for the project, but they worked out great.

HH: Thank you. Larry had told me that Joni's a big fan of Tina Turner ("Edith and the Kingpin ) and that Joni really liked Norah Jones ("Court and Spark ) too. Larry suggested that Corinne Bailey Rae ("River ) is the kind of singer Joni would like. Leonard Cohen was an influence on Joni early on. She has been a fan of his for many, many years.

AAJ: Yeah. He comes from that old folk music background.

HH: Yeah. And they're both Canadians. [Cohen] is one of Canada's cultural heroes. It made sense to have the opportunity to include him on the record. Luciana Souza—I think Joni had already heard Luciana and liked her. Actually, Luciana is Larry's wife. His present wife and Joni's his former wife. But they're all friends. Luciana's a pretty big fan of Joni's music. So she jumped at the chance.

AAJ: Luciana does work with other people's poetry as well, putting it to music.

HH: She's a very talented lady.

AAJ: I'm not going to jump on every song, but "Jungle Line, my goodness. It is so, so different than the original, but the contrast of your piano and the voice—it's stunning.

HH: That was Larry's idea. We were looking to do something non-standard. He thought that it might be a great idea, because of Leonard's voice, to have him do a spoken word. Larry had already heard me in the studio, when we were fooling around trying to look at Joni's words to songs and develop an approach to them that would be a more dramatic or cinematic approach. He heard how I was dealing with that and he thought that was pretty cool. His idea was to do a spoken word with my solo piano accompaniment—an improvised solo accompaniment. That's, in fact, what we did. It only took a couple takes to get it like that.

What I decided to do, because the phrase "jungle line comes up at the end of the verses... Recognizing that it's kind of a theme for the song, I decided the first thing I should do is figure out kind of a theme that captures the feeling of that jungle line. So I found something I felt would work and used that as a jumping off point for the rest of the conversation.

HerbieAAJ: "Nefertiti is also very unique. I saw you guys a couple years ago—you and David and Wayne—you were taking songs and really changing them. It sounds very much in that vein.

HH: Similar in?

AAJ: In the way you stretch it out.

HH: Yeah.

AAJ: And disguise the original vamp, coming from a different direction.

HH: Yeah. What we talked about, it was primarily Wayne's suggestion. We decided early on we didn't want to mess with the way we originally recorded it with Miles. That kind of stands on its own; we better find another direction. That's nothing to try to compete with. So, Wayne... we just sort of started painting pictures, in a way, through a musical dialog, and then slooowly work our way into the melody. At first, create a musical environment, and then, little by little, get to the melody. That's why it came out the way it did.

AAJ: With this album and your last one, Possibilities (Hear Music, 2005), you might hear diehard jazz fans grumble a little. Does that bother you? I know you got criticism in the late '60s as Miles' music started to change, and you were a part of that. Did you learn lessons from Miles in that regard, to not listen to the grumbling?

HH: Well, the only person sitting behind the piano is me. [laughs] They're sitting behind a piece of paper and a pen. I'm the one who makes the music. I have to be responsible for it. It's my vision, not theirs. Anybody can see the music any way they want to see it. That's their choice. My choice is to depict the music as I see it or as I hear it. That's all I need to do. Do I have to prove something to somebody at this point in my career? [chuckles] I don't think so.

Not that you ever have to prove something, but it's a process you go through at the beginning of your career. It's a natural process of establishing your identity, and also there's a sense of proving something, in a way. Usually there is that. Not with everybody, but with most artists there is that to go through. But later on, that ceases to be an issue.

I think in my case, people expect the unexpected anyway. It's not out of character for me to do something that they don't expect. It would be out of character for me to do something that they do expect. [laughs] It's a kind of weird way to look at it. [laughs]

But the thing is, it is all acoustic. Except for the electric guitar, but that's not something that's excluded from the concept of acoustic music. It is improvised and it's kind of open and free. I think one of the main differences is that there aren't solo spaces, per se, on the record. Yes, there is on the trio tune that we play, "Solitude, but for the most part on the record there are dialogs going on instead of individual solo spaces. That makes it a little different. I feel that's a very valid thing to do. Someone like Wayne Shorter, who really knows how to do that. He and I work together very well. And I think that kind of makes it interesting, not to have to depend on guy sticking out and everybody else in the background.

Herbie Hancock

I've already been to Europe, to London, Paris and Berlin. I've done a lot of interviews in those three cities and the response by those reviewers has been really tremendous. And with reviewers here in the States, the response has been tremendous. Many of them are from jazz publications.

AAJ: When you're out on tour, will this be the music people will be primarily hearing?

HH: My tours from this year—and the end of last year—it was my decision to design a program that's an overview of the highlights, what people would consider to be the highlights of my career. We've been playing "Watermelon Man and "Chameleon and "Maiden Voyage and some things from my last record, Possibilities. On my next tour, I'm going to have to change a few things around because we're going to do some things from the new record.

AAJ: Where do you get your inspiration these days? Your projects are various and they always sound different. What moves you?

HH: From living. But at the same time, I've been practicing Buddhism thirty-five years. It really helps me to recognize a larger overview of life than what my perception was in the past. It's a much better place to be, believe me. [laughs] It works for me. It works for everybody else I know that's ever been exposed to this practice of Buddhism.

Because it's inclusive. When you start being exclusive, and kicking things out, you always run into trouble. But when you start recognizing even the small things that are nice, acknowledging the beauty of the smallest things and acknowledging the full elements of something outside the box, it gives you a chance to grow. If you keep locking yourself in, how in the hell are you going to grow? If you're a kid and never ask questions, you'll still just be like that. Who wants to be like that? [laughs] That's not what we're here to do. We're here to grow. And the Buddhism helps me to grow.

Selected Discography

Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007)
Herbie Hancock, Possibilities (Hear Music, 2005)
Herbie Hancock/Michael Brecker/Roy Hargrove, Directions in Music (Verve, 2003)
Herbie Hancock, Future2Future (Verve, 2003)
Herbie Hancock, Gerswhin's World (Verve, 1998)
Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)
Jack DeJohnette, Parallel Realities (MCA, 1990)
Michael Brecker, Don't Try This at Home (Impulse!, 1988)
Herbie Hancock, Future Shock (Columbia, 1983)
Herbie Hancock, Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980)
Herbie Hancock, V.S.O.P. Live Under the Sky (Legacy, 1979)
Joni Mitchell, Mingus (Asylum, 1979)
Herbie Hancock, Man-Child (Legacy, 1975)
Herbie Hancock, Thrust (Legacy, 1974)
Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Legacy, 1973)
Herbie Hancock, Mwandishi (Warner Bros., 1970)
Freddie Hubbard, Red Clay (CTI, 1970)
Herbie Hancock, The Prisoner (Blue Note, 1969)
Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Legacy, 1969)
Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Legacy, 1967)
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles (Legacy, 1966)
Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965)
Bobby Hutcherson, Components (Blue Note, 1965)
Herbie Hancock, Takin' Off (Blue Note, 1962)
Donald Byrd, Royal Flush (Blue Note, 1961)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Herbie Hancock


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