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.

AAJ: But a contemporary of yours and not a young guy.

HH: Exactly. It's funny because Wayne and I have had a lot of conversations about the state of jazz today and what's happening. 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. We've both taken on the responsibility, as we should, in looking at the fact that our real future lies in our youth. What should we be doing to help carve a path that can lead toward an openness and a fertile kind of future for the development of the music?

We're both kind of reexamining conventional ways of looking at things and putting out on our records new approaches every time. Just to show it can be done. We don't have to do things the same way every time. People aren't aware of a sameness. In a lot of cases we have to show there are other ways of looking at things. We're doing that because that's how we feel about music at this point in our own development.

AAJ: At this point, in your long career, who inspires you. Is it the same people. Who inspires you today. Or what?

HH: In the past, there's always been one leader that has led the pack to development of the music. There was Charlie Parker. Then Miles and Trane did it. Before Bird, Duke did it. There were various people. Since Miles, there doesn't seem to be a certain ringleader. I started examining the concept of: Does there have to be a single person doing that? And does it have to be a person at all? Maybe the inspiration can come from a whole other concept, rather than a person. I'm kind of a proponent of that idea. In my case, 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. I find myself paying more attention to the news. I read the newspaper more. I've actually started to read. I hardly ever read books before. I'm looking at other sources for inspiration; feelings and developments that are happening in human life itself.

How we look at the environment. All these are new things that are part of the 21st century. Who paid attention to the environment in the 20th century? Now we see that we have to pay attention to the environment. We have to protect it. It's become a real issue and a lot of people are still looking at it from a 20th century standpoint. They could care less. But there are others that are realizing that it's part of what keeps us alive It's part of the beauty that exists for creative inspiration.

AAJ: Does that factor into what kind of music you want to play at any time, acoustic, electric? Is it from reading and the things that you pick up? Does that then effect what you feel?

HH: Not so much that. It's more just an inner urge. I'm placing less barriers between the two. On this tour (Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Gary Thomas on sax, Scott Colley on bass) that I'm doing now, we're not promoting a record. It's kind of unusual because I'm usually promoting some kind of project. It's kind of end-of-the-year concerts that are coming up. This is not a recurring group that I'm going to be working necessarily a lot with in the future. We'll see what happens beyond this tour.

But there isn't a particular concept, like Directions in Music had a concept. We've done three concerts already. At each concert I had one synthesizer there that I didn't even use in every concert. It's there, in case I just want to add a little something, a musical pad or something somewhere; a sound somewhere that I think might be appropriate to bring in and bring out, and not be any real focus.

So I'm opening up myself to a lot of possibilities. I'm going to bring some kind of synthesizer and just have it sit on top of the piano in case I do need it. In case I feel that it's appropriate.

AAJ: Your association with Miles, how does that play into your musical life. Has it been a blessing? Sometimes a burden, when so many people want to ask you about it?

HH: Not so much a burden. It's certainly been a blessing. Miles I consider my last real musical mentor. A lot of lessons I learned from Miles musically, I've found — because I've been practicing Buddhism for the last 30 years — I'm recognizing how those lessons are so important in the application in daily life. Things like creating in the moment, being in the moment, trusting your instincts, not being afraid to go outside the comfort zone.

AAJ: Those great people that you played with back then — Ron Carter, Wayne, Tony Williams, it has to be satisfying.

HH: All of us either learned, or had those concepts and others, encouraged by Miles and by all the members of that group. We learned from each other and Miles learned from us too.

AAJ: You live in LA now, you prefer it to New York?

HH: I lived I New York for 11 years. I've been here for 30 years now.

AAJ: Musically, you don't feel like you're missing anything in New York, it's still the center of things. A: I don't need to live in New York to continue and move in a direction I want to move in.

AAJ: Do you still tinker with movie music at all?

HH: I haven't done a score in a while. I've been asked to participate on a couple of occasions. Little short things. In the movie "Traffic" there's one scene where there's something of my piano in it; something they wanted improvised. They came over to my studio and we did it right here. Every once in while there's something that comes along.

There's a movie where I'm actually music coordinator for, coming out called "Hitters." Kind of a mafia style movie coming out. Eva King is doing the music and I'm kind of helping with some of the decision making for this movie. A dear friend of mine is producer and primary actor in it. He put the thing together. A low budget thing, but a feature-length film. So I've got my hand dabbling in it. I haven't done a score in a while.

There are some other things I'm looking for in the future. I'm getting ready to put together something, to open up a new avenue for myself, having to do with a symphony orchestra.

AAJ: Will it be jazz-influenced, more symphonic, or "legit?"

HH: I don't think it will be so legit, because I'm not that interested in doing that. I like combinations of things. I think the first time we go out, it will kind of be an offshoot of a record I did called Gershwin's World. Using that as a framework to work in, to get my foot in the door, then I can move toward a lot of different combinations of things.

AAJ: So still moving, still changing.

HH: Oh yeah. If I'm not doing that, then I'd be bored I'm definitely excited about new ways of looking at things.

AAJ: Who's out there making music you enjoy now.

HH: Wayne Shorter. From what I can see, he's doing the most provocative and interesting things.

AAJ: Any of the younger guys, like Wallace Roney or...?

HH: Wallace Roney is a great player. Terri Lyne Carrington is great. She's bringing out some of her music. Gonzalo Rubalcaba. He's not new, but his approach to music has evolved. He's calming down a lot. Taking his time with things. Creating a whole new approach to the piano that doesn't depend on pyrotechnics. More of a balance in the musical approach.

New names? I don't really concentrate on just listening to jazz players. And I don't concentrate on just listening to music either. So I'm not familiar with all the new names. A lot of times, other people turn me on to new people that are doing stuff, so I don't consider myself a spokesman for everything that's going on in jazz.

Visit Herbie Hancock on the web at www.herbiehancock.com .


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