Herbie Hancock: One World, One Music

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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—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, Seal, Pink, Juanes, Jeff Beck, Marcus Miller, 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.

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