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Herbie Hancock: (New) Directions Included

R.J. DeLuke By

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I'm looking less to musical sources for inspiration and broadening my scope beyond the entertainment field and looking more into life itself. Life today.
Herbie Hancock is one of the remaining legends of jazz, but he is not going to be pigeonholed in that jazz "box." He likes change, he said in an October conversation, and wishes more of the younger generation of jazz musicians had the same attitude, though he admits they don't.

At least not like he does. Not like his contemporary, friend, and fellow legend Wayne Shorter, does.

"It's funny because Wayne and I have had a lot of conversations about the state of jazz today and what's happening," he said. "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." He continues on his own artistic voyage, not trying to carry the load But he leads by example, even if he doesn't say so.

Hancock is one of the few who follows the example of Miles Davis: to move the music forward, to eschew conservative attitudes no matter what the fallout. But he's done so because that's his nature, not by any conscious decision.

"I feel someone younger should be doing that," he says without hesitation about the Post-Miles Jazz Messiah some of the flock are waiting for. "I'm aware that a lot of what is happening in jazz has not had a very dynamic change in a long time. There are people who are making changes, but right now, for me the most dynamic leader is Wayne Shorter."

Hancock, 62, admits to looking elsewhere for inspiration — to things outside music; to life; to places; to thoughts. It's a change from the usual listing of other pianists or players drawn upon for inspiration. But that's Herbie. A Buddhist for 30 years, he is not caught up in the trappings of trying to keep up with the musical Joneses, or worrying about what music magazines are writing about him. He wasn't even promoting a CD or project when he took time out chat. He's inquisitive and intelligent. And confident. Why not?

Born in Chicago, Hancock — a child piano prodigy — performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11. He began playing jazz in high school, initially influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. In 1960, Hancock, 20, trumpeter Donald Byrd asked him to join his group. He signed with Blue Note Records soon after and his 1963 debut album, Takin' Off, did exactly that, producing "Watermelon Man," an instant hit. That year he received the call to join the Miles Davis Quintet, marching with Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams into jazz heaven. His solo career took off with his own groups and experiments, as well as ventures into movie and television music. In 1973, Headhunters became jazz's first platinum album with the hit single "Chameleon."

Along the way there have been Grammys, an Oscar, MTV award, magazine poll victories, and more. His piano touch is still exquisite, his imagination fertile. The sound of Herbie on the ivory keys is still one of the great pleasures in jazz and other pianists still speak in awe; in hushed tones. Even Hancock himself wasn't fully aware of his heavy — to say the least — influence on music, as he pointed out recently.

All About Jazz (AAJ): You've done so much over your career, how do you decide what's next? When you're going to get electric, when this is going to happen, when that is going to happen? Is it creative-based, is it business-based, a little of both?

Herbie Hancock (HH): When I did Future 2 Future, it occurred to me, that I hadn't really done anything in electric music in a while. That was one thing. It was a combination of things. The other thing that was very important was that there was a whole new area of electronic music that was emerging on the pop scene, growing out of the hip-hop movement, but sounding very different from that. Not being relegated to just that direction — much broader than that. It wasn't me that was aware of that. It was Bill Laswell, who produced Rockit and two or three albums for me after Rockit. It kind of grew out of that momentum. He went to see my manager about me appearing on a song on a project he was doing and my manager thought, "Would you be interested in producing another record for Herbie?" And Bill said yes. He asked me about the idea. I said yeah.. I hadn't done anything with Bill in awhile.

Bill was the one who told me something that surprised me. He told me that in this area of new electronic music, work that I had done in the past was a key springboard for a lot of the young artists that were creating this music. I thought he was talking about Rockit or some of that music, which would have made sense to me. And he said, "No, I'm talking about Sextant and the stuff you did with Mwandishi band."

I said, "That's totally acoustic, avant-garde jazz stuff." And he said, "That's what they are listening to. That's what young musicians are listening to and being inspired by."

I didn't believe it at first. Until I started to find out from other sources that many of those artists have been inspired by stuff I did back in those days. That was a total shock to me. It made me curious. I didn't know much about this new electronic scene. I knew it was going on, but I hadn't really followed it or paid any particular attention to it Then I became curious. If these people are influenced by what I did, how would it be if I worked directly with them and collaborated with them? That's one of the reasons for the title of the record, Future 2 Future, because here they are creating kind of a new musical approach, underground approach, but coming out of what used to be underground but what has become popular, which is the whole hip-hop scene. This music is a much broader avenue. A lot of it is instrumental, rather than verbal. Although in some cases you find some spoken word, and there are some examples that use rap and so forth. It's very open ended. A lot of the people that are making the music didn't have the kind of experiences I've had, playing with some of the great masters of jazz.

I'm always looking to create new avenues or new visions of music. I'm always interested in looking forward toward the future. Carving out new ways of looking at things. And here are some young people that are also creating some music that is evolving into some of the new music for the 21st century — that's why the Future 2 Future thing came about.

Also, that fact that the people that I worked with have been influenced by stuff that I did in the past, it's sort of like me collaborating with people that have ingrained in them certain aspects of what I've done. Anyway, we thought it might be interesting to see what the end result would be.

AAJ: Then you switched totally back and did the jazz thing with Roy Hargrove and Michael Brecker ( Directions in Music ), but doing it totally different. That music isn't the way it was done in the past — I know you intended it that way.

HH: The thing is, much of the way I look at music now, and its role as an aspect of culture, and creative expression for human beings in the 21st century, much of the way I look at it for a record like Future 2 Future is very similar to how I might look at it for a record like Directions in Music. Some of the basic elements are the same, although how they may present themselves may be somewhat different because of the difference in the instruments.

There's not so much of a difference in the foundation or the roots of where they come from. So recently I've been doing some tours with Future 2 Future, some tours with Directions in Music, and I find that they influence each other. I don't make as much of a distinction between the two as I did in the past. As a matter of fact, so much of Future 2 Future stems more from the avant-garde stuff I did with the Mwandishi band, which was totally acoustic, than it does, say, coming from Rockit.

When I do concerts, because I've been in the business for a long time and certain pieces of music have become associated with me, I do some pieces from the past. They may include "Rockit" or "Watermelon Man" or "Dolphin Dance" or "Maiden Voyage." Whether it's an acoustic group I'm touring with or an electric group, I might do any of those pieces from the past.

AAJ: You're touring at the end of this year with just an acoustic quarter. The music from the smaller group may be not as intense as the Directions in Music band?

HH: We'll see how it evolves. We're still kind of getting used to each other. But I'm not so focused on intensity from that kind of testosterone level that a lot of jazz is on. I think there's been not only enough, but too much of that. It gets boring when you look out at the audience and you see that 90 percent of the people out there are males. It makes you wonder what's happening, what's missing. I think a lot of that has to do with the masculine part of us making it difficult for the kind of sensitive feminine part to come out. That's why women aren't really attracted to the music, because it doesn't express some of those elements. Both men and women have masculine and feminine elements. We've just been concentrating on the masculine elements in jazz coming out for too long. It's time for feminine elements to emerge.

Not just in jazz, I think in politics too. Men have gotten to the point where we're not doing a good job anymore. It remains to be seen whether we really did a good job in the past. [chuckles] We're definitely not capable of doing it at this point, because we're going to kill each other, the way it's going. I think women can lead us out of that, if we give them a chance. Unfortunately, we pretty much hold the reins.

AAJ: It's becoming a pissing contest all the time.

HH: Right! Exactly! And we're pretty much pissed out [laughter].

AAJ: When Miles passed, there were some people who openly wondered who would be the person to venture out. Miles would go out there and prove it was OK to do this, it was OK to do that. Even if he wasn't absolutely the originator of every direction that he took, he made it OK. And people were saying, "Who's going to do that now?" It may be you. Do you ever think that way? You have been out there in hip-hop, in electronics, acoustic, solo. You don't seem to be intimated by any direction.

HH: In a way, I feel someone younger should be doing that. I'm aware that a lot of what is happening in jazz has not had a very dynamic change in a long time. There are people who are making changes, but right now, for me the most dynamic leader is Wayne Shorter.
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