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."

Which brings Hancock to his newest album, The Imagine Project (Hancock Records/Red, 2010). It may be an even further departure from his jazz roots on the surface. Described by Hancock as "about peace through global collaboration," the pianist recorded a number of pop tunes with an international cast—Anoushka Shankar, Seal, Pink, Jeff Beck, Lionel Loueke, Ceu, Dave Matthews, Derek Trucks, Chaka Khan, The Chieftains, Oumou Sangare, Juanes—often in his guest's own locales, bringing him from Jacksonville to Paris to Mumbai to São Paolo. "My wish list was to be able to record various combinations of artists, Western artists combined with non-Western artists, and to do the recordings of the non-Western artists in their respective countries, ideally or close to it," Hancock said. "Because I really wanted to get the flavor of the culture and be surrounded by the atmosphere that bore that culture and the best way to do that is to be there. And just smell the smells, taste the food and be around the people."

Hancock was not necessarily very familiar with some of these artist's work and it is unclear how much the guests knew about his own background but as Hancock describes it, "it seemed they didn't have a problem agreeing to do the record so they must have not only known my name, they must have had a sense of my reputation being such that they wanted to be on the record... There are a lot of people in the pop and rock and roll fields that adore jazz. They may not play it themselves but when they get on the tour bus, that's the music they play on the tour bus. That is something that would surprise a lot of people."

Wayne Shorter is also on the record, as he has been for many of Hancock's albums over the years. Even if there is no other 'jazz' musician on a Hancock date, it seems that Shorter is always included. Hancock explains it simply: "Wayne is unique first of all and secondly his intuition is uncanny. So no matter where you place Wayne, it'll work. So regardless of the different directions I go in, I put Wayne on there, without him changing from being himself, it'll still work. Somehow, it's like a great actor that finds the character within themselves. So he himself doesn't have to become someone he isn't. Wayne has the capacity to do that."

For Hancock, coincidence or serendipity or maybe even fate, played a big role in putting together The Imagine Project. "Oumou Sangare, who is from Mali, I didn't know of her music. When her name was mentioned, it just so happened that the previous Sunday, there was a big article in the Los Angeles Times about musicians from Mali that were influenced by the music from America, primarily the blues and r&b, which has its roots, not necessarily in Mali, but in the continent of Africa. ...So when Larry Klein, who brought her to my attention, mentioned her name, I had just read something about her. For me that was an indication that this was right. When things seem to converge together, things that look like coincidence... I don't believe in coincidence, I believe they mean something." And as far as facilitating all the travel necessary for the various recording sessions—Hancock financed the project himself and is releasing it on his own Hancock Records/Red imprint—luck played a role. "The first recording, we did it in India," Hancock said. "I was going to be in India anyway, so again this let me know that this was the right thing to do. And Chaka Khan was going to be in India anyway... One of the other recordings was made in Paris; it turned out that some of the African groups that we wanted to record were either in France or in Europe at the time and there was a window of opportunity to record them all in Paris and so we did that. And then we went to Dublin from Paris to record The Chieftains. It all just kind of worked out that way."

When asked about why he chose to take total control of the project as opposed to going the traditional route of label support, Hancock replied emphatically. "This is a new age now. There is no distinct model for the record business today. It's still in transition. And so if anything is a model, it's the idea that artists themselves are creating new ways of exposing their music to the public and generating record sales... The old model was the record label would front the money to the artists, temporarily because you pay it back to them through record sales...so basically they owned the pie and you'd get a piece of it. I'm tired of that ... I looked forward to the day that I was able not to be under the umbrella of a major label and I could actually own my own material, produce it with the people I want, when I want. Basically own myself and do what I want to do."

Hancock just turned 70, though he still maintains the impish smile of his youth. He will celebrate his decades in music with a concert at Carnegie Hall this month including old friends like Shorter. It is a rare moment to look backwards for an artist always facing the future. Hancock is purely a musician now, not jazz, not pop, not anything definable. He puts it ardently: "I do what I want to do and I do what I feel, what I believe in. I have to represent what I believe in. And I'm the only one that lives in this skin and has to be responsible for it. And I never signed a contract in blood that said I had to remain a jazz musician. But the truth is there's jazz in all the records I do, even if I tried not to do it, it's always going to be there if I'm going to be honest with myself."

Selected Discography:

Herbie Hancock—The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions (Blue Note, 1961-69)

Miles Davis Quintet—1965-1968: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia-Legacy, 1965-8)

Herbie Hancock—Mwandishi (Warner Bros., 1970)

Herbie Hancock—Head Hunters (Columbia-Legacy, 1973)

Herbie Hancock—The Piano (Columbia-Legacy, 1978)

Herbie Hancock—V.S.O.P.: Live Under The Sky (Columbia-Legacy, 1979)

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