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Catching up with Herbie Hancock

Mike Brannon By

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in September 1998.

Seldom has a musician been so closely associated with two separate musical genres as has pianist and composer Herbie Hancock. Originally introduced to the world as part of Miles Davis' mid-60's group, which also included Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Hancock also made a name for himself in the pop world as well, starting with the Headhunters band in '72 and in the '80s with the Rockit band. And strangely enough, each camp seems to know very little about the other and sometimes that the other even exists. Beyond that, 'the chameleon' is also a composer in these and many other styles and has done film scoring for over thirty years. So when you hear someone mention Herbie Hancock, for the sake of elucidation, it would be a fair question to counter with "which Herbie Hancock?" But in a way this is good. The man responsible for "Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man," "Rockit" and other authenticated chart hits is left free to pursue whichever muse he chooses to follow at the time. This makes for a more content, well-rounded musician who in turn provides the best possible performance at whatever he's pursuing at the moment. And he does. Its no wonder there are the relative nicknames the eclectic Hancock has earned throughout his career: M'Wandishi (the composer), Mr. Hands (the player) and The Chameleon. Wonder which one his wife calls him. There's a Downbeat article from '86 that well illustrates this dichotomy. Hancock's trio of Al Foster and Ron Carter is joined by Branford Marsalis at an Atlantic City casino in preparation for a summer tour of the states, Europe and Japan. While its an acoustic jazz gig, the promo photo used was from his Rockit band, which is anything but acoustic, with its Fairlight synthesizer generating designed sound samples, funk bass and scratching turntables in the mix. The patrons are noticeably disappointed—until they start playing and expectations are forgotten.

This is partly the seduction of improvised music at this level and partly the fact that its Hancock at the keys that makes it the very unique, powerful and soulful experience it always is. He has said before that, for him, to do only one type of music would be unsatisfying. The crux is really that Hancock does all that he attempts so well and with such attention to the inherent details of the particular form at hand that he often improves and adds to the vocabulary of the style itself. To see this very original, 'seeming' perfectionist play with a combined precision and loose abandon is to literally witness simultaneous left and right brainstorms. Apparently just business as usual for one with the talents and accomplishments of Hancock. Don't be fooled though, he just makes it look easy.

As an interview subject, Hancock develops his thoughts like his solos, thoughtfully, deliberately and with careful phrasing. It can be hard to tell what's planned from what's left to chance. All in all, pretty amazing for a guy who started with an electrical engineering background and found music in the process and who it seems has never looked back. His '96 release New Standards picks up Miles' cue to use pop tunes from various sources and eras as vehicles for jazz improvisation, personal expression and further extension of the jazz repertoire and just to remind us what's cool about both.

All About Jazz: Do you feel that there's much value in the college level music programs? Is there a real purpose in musicians making an effort to get to these schools or do you think there's better ways of getting their careers together?

Herbie Hancock: I've only gone to two colleges. Grinnell College and The Manhattan School of Music in New York, and I certainly got a lot out of it. Of course things changed a lot since I was at school. And from what I understand, the music department at Grinnell is so much better than when I was there. I mean, absolutely they are of value. Some are better than others.

AAJ: Is there a real purpose for musicians making the effort to get to these schools, or do you think there are better ways of getting their careers together?

HH: Oh, definitely there is a real purpose in trying to get to schools for studying music or whether its a Liberal Arts school or a music school. My feeling is that the more you learn the more you're able to draw from. There is no downside in going to school. There's just this old rumor that if you've kind of learned how to play music or play jazz for example, by ear, that it will take your soul away. That's an absolute lie (laughs). If you have soul, so to speak, nothing can take it away. You will make sure to protect that. Because that's so important to have feeling. That's most important.

AAJ: How would you tell a new sideman or student to be a better listener within an ensemble? What should they be listening for?

HH: That a part of the responsibility of being a human being, is to be able to work with people and interact with people. Just like in a conversation, if you're the kind of person who just dominates a conversation—doesn't listen to anybody else—, you probably won't have a lot of friends (laughs). It could conceivably indicate a serious weakness in your character. It may indicate that you don't respect others as much as you respect yourself. Its very important to respect others and by the same token, its very important to respect the other musicians. You can learn from the other musicians. If you don't listen, you can't learn anything, in life or in music.

AAJ: What should they be listening for?

HH: They should be listening for anything of value. They should listen to everything. They should be listening to any ideas, it may be an idea, that on the surface may sound like it isn't anything to respond to, but the more experience you get, the more you're able to to take almost nothing and make something out of it. Just remember, writing music, you start with nothing and create something out of nothing. The same thing can apply to playing with other musicians. They may make a mistake and you can take that mistake and turn it into something of great beauty. It will enhance your own playing to be able to work as a team, just as in sports, and basketball. To work as a team. As a team the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

AAJ: What would you say as far as events in your life or in your career that have had the greatest impact on your musical and personal life?

HH: In terms of anything? Buddhism. Well, first of all, my mother. My parents, particularly, my mother, because they were the ones to instill basis values in me. One of the most important things they provided me with was a sense of hope. That is something that has sustained me throughout my whole life and allowed me to have dreams and have the capacity to move forward in my life. The second thing was, being introduced to Buddhism which I've been practicing now for 26 years. I belong to a Buddhist organization called SGI. The real name is too long to pronounce. There have been so many benefits that I have gotten out of it, practicing Buddhism. It has really taught me to recognize the weaknesses of my own character so that I can work on them. It has really helped to clarify the events in my life, the things that have happened to me. And the things that I do. And it helped me to be able to recognize much more of a connection between things instead of their appearing to be separate from each other. So it has affected the decisions I've made and allowed me to have a much broader overview than I ever had before and than I would have had, had I not practiced Buddhism. There are other things— winning awards, opportunities and so forth—I believe have entered my life and in many cases due to the viewpoint that I have of the world which has been supported and affected by from the onstart by my parents, particularly, my mother, instilling many things, including hope, as I said before. And that I could achieve anything that I want. And also Buddhism has helped me to attract those kinds of opportunities and to be able to succeed in being able to satisfy what was required from those opportunities. And have those opportunities come in a way that allowed them to be stepping stones toward my career development.

AAJ: Who are some of your favorite present day influences and why?

HH: Miles Davis, even though he's passed away is a still a constant source of inspiration and support because of the many things that I learned from playing in his band, about teamwork, about courage, about the courage to take risks. And about listening. I learned many things from the other musicians in addition to the things I named—other musicians that were in Miles' band—Tony Williams taught me a lot about rhythms and being able to use complex rhythms in a very musical way. Not just rhythms, complex rhythms for their intellectual value. Ron Carter was such an innovative bassist that he had the means to kinds of bass lines and other approaches to chord structures. Wayne Shorter taught me a lot about composition. He's one of my favorite composers still. And he also taught me about—as an improviser, and performing—to also be a composer and construct solos through the use, in many cases, of thematic material and developing that material, not just playing a bunch of notes that just happen to fit the chords. From the standpoint of jazz—influences.

From the kind of more funky side, James Brown, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder influenced me. And George Duke has been an influence, playing a portable keyboard that kind of played like a guitar—walk around onstage. How he approaches that. Miles also about phrasing. Miles was a big influence as far as that's concerned. But also singers like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and many others have been influences. I mean there's so many, Bud Powell was an influence on my playing, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Evans, the Hi-Lo's for harmony, the vocal group. Particularly the arrangements of Clare Fischer. There have been a lot.

AAJ: When did you know that you'd really found your own sound—when were you sure of that?

HH: I would say I became aware of my individuality expressed as my own sound; my own approach—improvising—somewhere in the mid-'60s. There isn't a point, anything like a pinpoint, it's something that developed gradually. I first became aware that I might have an individual sound in the mid-60's and that realization kind of grew the more experience I got.

AAJ: You were on Wynton Marsalis' first solo album. What were those experiences like for those involved and do you and Wynton plan to perform together again?

HH: Wynton is a very, very challenging musician and he showed that talent at a very young age. He showed maturity in his sound and his music at a very young age, which is why I took him on the road to Europe to play with a group that I led called VSOP II, a quartet with myself, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums. We were all the old, kind of seasoned musicians and Wynton was only about 19 and he was able to rise to the occasion and make the music happen.

AAJ: The VSOP release put you back with Miles Davis' rhythm section ('63-'68) of which your were a part. How was it different to get back with those players without Miles at the helm?

HH: Actually, I don't look at it that way. We have a definite, almost "family "connection. They're part of my musical family. We were basically in our twenties when we played with Miles, except for Tony Williams—he was 17—and we all have a connection. During those years, those were our very formative years, when we began to develop our own thing , so to speak, during the time that we were with Miles and that created a bond that we all have. Now, Tony Williams passed away last year, so he's no longer with us, but the bond is indescribable as something that we all just trust and doesn't require anything. Something that's solid like concrete. So, when I get together with these guys I'm playing with whoever's there. I'm not conscious of Miles not being there, I don't think that way. I think I'm there with Ron Carter and Tony Williams—when he was alive—and Wayne Shorter, and we did a tour, by the way called 'Tribute to Miles' and Wallace Roney—great trumpet player—played the trumpet. And he's a great admirer of Miles Davis and plays in the style that obviously relates to Miles's sound; knows every one of Miles' solos—everything about Miles. And we had a wonderful time. We didn't think about what it would be like if Miles were there, we tried to live in the present.

AAJ: I understand there is a new CD of Gershwin's music coming out. Can you talk about that a bit?

HH: It's arguably one of the best things that I think I've ever done. Had the great support of a lot of people who I admire, like Stevie Wonder, who sings 'St. Louis Blues.' Joni Mitchell who sings 'The Man I Love' and 'Summertime.' Wayne Shorter does a Duke Ellington tune 'Cottontail.' Chick Corea and I do a piano duet on a tune called 'Blueberry Rhyme' written by James P. Johnson. Ron Carter was involved in it. Eddie Henderson—great trumpet player who I used to work with—was also involved. Kenny Garrett—great alto saxophonist. We actually had different personnel on each tune. There's a great deal of variety on this record, all the way from me playing the song 'Embraceable You,' solo piano, to me playing the second movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major with an orchestra. We really worked hard on this project but I'm extremely happy with the way it came out.

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