Herbie Hancock: Seven Decades of Imagination

Andrey Henkin By

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In the jazz world, certain figures exist purely as first names, their reputation assuring recognition. When ones hears the name Herbie, the mind jumps immediately to possibly the most famous 'rhythm section' in history: Herbie, Ron and Tony. That group included two more figures for whom last names are unnecessary, Miles and Wayne. Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born on Apr. 12th, 1940 and, at the precocious age of 21, had made his recording debut in the band of another trumpeter, Donald Byrd. But despite a legendary and often controversial career (which began as a leader in 1962 with Takin' Off) over the subsequent almost five decades, Hancock is usually first and foremost discussed in terms of his seven years (1963-70) with Miles Davis. Even this profile has managed to do it but Hancock doesn't mind. "Miles, first of all, he himself was such a seminal figure in the history of jazz and the group that we had was arguably one of his greatest groups," Hancock remarked on the phone from Los Angeles. ..."I really developed my own personal sound and the seeds of my own personal direction during the time I was with Miles. I understand it, makes sense to me."

The lessons Hancock learned from Davis are myriad. He certainly embraced and even advanced electric innovations through his Mwandishi and Headhunters projects of the '70s. And there is a certain shared iconoclasm, not being weighed down by the expectations of purist jazz listeners. But unlike his mentor's approach and despite being part of one of the most seminal working bands in jazz or any musical history, Hancock consciously decided after the '70s not to maintain a regular ensemble. "I knew I wanted to explore a lot of different kinds of territory and even though I understand the advantage of having a group that works with you constantly, the intuitive aspects of the inter-relation, the creative inter-relationship between the musicians grows over time...it was either that or it was opening myself up to all kinds of new possibilities that would not depend on exactly the same people playing those parts and I decided that that was what I wanted. That I would pick the best people for the particular direction I might be going in. In doing that I gave up that possibility of developing that single sound and I haven't regretted it for a moment."

The particular direction Hancock has been going in for the past several years is one that has alarmed the aforementioned purists. In 2008, Hancock won a Grammy Award, not for Best R&B Instrumental Performance as he had in the '80s or Best Instrumental Composition, Performance or Album as he had in the '90s, but for Album of the Year, the first time a jazz musician had received the award since Stan Getz in 1965. So while some might be thrilled to have one of their own getting recognition in a modern music world where jazz is increasingly becoming irrelevant, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007), where Hancock performed iconic vocalist Joni Mitchell's tunes with guests such as Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and Mitchell herself, was not necessarily their preferred vehicle.

Whatever outside opinions may be, Hancock may have been the most surprised to receive a nomination at all, much less take home the prize. "I was at the press conference where the nominees for all the different categories were announced," Hancock recalled. ..."And the last category was mentioned was Album of the Year and when they said Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill, The Foo Fighters and Herbie Hancock, I said what? ...But of course when I won, I didn't actually hear my name when it was mentioned, it was so foreign that it was like I didn't hear it and then all of a sudden I realized, he said me! And I couldn't speak for a second and then I turned around and looked at Larry Klein, the producer, because he was sitting right behind and I still didn't say anything, I just had my mouth open. And he said, 'I guess we won' and we hugged each other and we were both crying and then I said I better get myself together, I've got to give a speech." When asked if he felt the album may have brought new attention to his more traditional jazz work, Hancock was non-committal: "I do know from earlier when I did Head Hunters and when I did Rockit, there were people who bought those records that had never heard of me before. And many of those people did go back and check out my earlier material and started listening to other people in the jazz field and many of them became jazz fans as a result. I would guess that same pattern would hold true this time."


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