Herbie Hancock: The Chameleon Shows His Colors

Bob Kenselaar BY

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I always enjoy working with new forms, new idioms. I take them on as a learning experience, a challenge.
[Herbie Hancock has a long history of mixing it up—from jazz to funk, pop, and everything in between. At the time I did this interview with him in the summer of 1979, he'd been making ventures away from straight-ahead jazz for some time, but they were still fresh enough to have some fans up in arms. From today's perspective, though, it's clear that his eclecticism is a big part of what makes him the grand man of music that he is.]

Ever since his 1973 Head Hunters (Columbia) album, Herbie Hancock has been a subject of some controversy in jazz circles. "Chameleon," the big hit from the disc, attracted an overwhelming number of rock, pop, and R&B fans to his music, but jazz purists saw Hancock's crossing over as a compromise of his artistic integrity for commercial success.

I asked Hancock if he saw himself as a chameleon, variably embracing or letting go of his jazz roots. He answer revealed a very broad, eclectic vision of music. "I always enjoy working with new forms, new idioms. I take them on as a learning experience, a challenge.

"It's just like learning to speak a few different languages. Someone might want to write a novel in French because French might be fitting for their concept of the novel. Or they might want to write in Spanish because of a certain concept they have. It's the same type of thing. If you can use several means of expression, you can choose which one you want to use at any given moment. It's not so much coming back to this or coming back to that, or leaving this or leaving that. It's just that there are several choices available."

Aside from jazz, Hancock has dabbled in many other forms of music. He began his musical education with the study of European classical music. He did film scores for Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 modernist classic, and Death Wish, Dino De Laurentiis' 1974 crime thriller, and also did the score for a children's television series with Bill Cosby in 1969, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. He has recorded as a sideman for, among others, the Pointer Sisters, Connie Francis, Stevie Wonder, and Peter, Paul and Mary. His composition "Maiden Voyage," which has become a standard for contemporary jazz players, was originally written as the background for a Yardley men's cologne commercial.

"I don't place the value of so-called 'artistic music' over popular music. Both those options are valuable and available to me. What I choose to do doesn't depend on one being more important than the other. Sometimes the impact of an immediate step can be a great influence on the future—not just the immediate future, but a long- lasting future. So something can have both an immediate value and an indirect future value. That makes it all valuable, and I want to be involved in all of it.

"If you looked at my record collection, you would see everything from Bach and Beethoven to Pariament-Funkadelic and John Coltrane. Those are just the different types of music I like, and I might put on any one of those records at any time."

At an appearance in at New York's Bottom Line in mid-March, 1979, Hancock's appreciation for P-Funk came through loud and clear. The show included a good amount of music from Feets Don't Fail Me Now (Columbia), Hancock's early 1979 release, in addition to a sampling of music from his entire career. Hancock opened with a solo electric piano rendition of "My Funny Valentine," a tune he played with Miles Davis in 1964. He was then joined by bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Alphonse Mouzon for "Maiden Voyage," an early Hancock composition, and "Actual Proof." The rest of the band—Bennie Maupin on reeds, Ray Obiedo on guitar, Bill Summers on percussion, and Webster Lewis on second keyboards—came onstage for the next number, "Hang Up Your Hangups." The group switched to material from Feets for the rest of the set until the closing, a crowd-pleasing "Chameleon." "The concept behind the show is to have a spectrum of music," says Hancock. "I don't have to go outside my own recordings to do that because there is a whole spectrum of music in my recordings as they exist."

The Bottom Line show was a considerable departure from Hancock's highly successful tour a few years earlier, working with a group he led known as V.S.O.P., which made its debut in June 1976 at the Newport Jazz Festival. Presenting a retrospective on the music of the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-1960s, the touring band included Davis quintet members Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams, and, taking the place of Davis himself, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. While some elements of nostalgia imbued the group concept, its real accomplishment was the presentation of new, straight-ahead jazz from high highly accomplished instrumentalists.

Hancock hinted that the V.S.O.P. band might continue, and spoke positively of the idea of bringing such giants together. "I think it's a good idea, and I think, that type of option should be available because it hasn't been available in the past. Musicians of managers have been afraid of having musicians play in conjunction with other people besides their own band. I think they're afraid the audience might have a negative response—that they might start thinking, 'Oh, so-an-so doesn't have a band anymore. He must not be doing so well. His career must be over.' I thing that the more this kind of thing happens, the more people will realize that this is a great opportunity to have great musicians get together and make music. . . . I would love to do it again. It was fun."

Another recent outstanding Hancock endeavor was a collaboration with Chick Corea in early 1978 for a series of duo acoustic piano concerts, resulting in a two-record set, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: In Concert (Columbia, 1978). "Chick initiated the idea," he says. "The timing happened to be right. Actually, we had a talk about it as far back as 1969, around the time that we both worked on Miles' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1968), but we didn't do anything about it then. It was mentioned again in 1976, I believe, but I still didn't think the timing was right, so we did it in '78.

"It was a challenge for me to develop a way of playing that was complete without a rhythm section—I was so used to playing with bass and drums. Chick was a little more accustomed to playing in a solo piano setting than I was. But according to him, he learned a lot of things from me. I know that I sure learned a lot from him during the tour.

"We tried to play at halls that had the best sound for acoustic music. And in cases where we could, we found halls whose natural sound was so good we wouldn't have to use microphones.

"The audience we drew was made up mostly of people in their early-to- middle 20s who had never really heard acoustic piano in that type of setting, so it was really different for them. You could feel them adjusting to the sound. The response was incredible. It was a real trip for them."

The idea of reaching new audiences has a lot of appeal to Hancock, and he's fascinated by all forms of music that have wide appeal. "I've never really done any country music, and I'm curious about it. You know why? Because a lot of people like it, and if a lot of people like it, there must be something there. It doesn't happen to be a part of my own musical experience, so I'm not sure I would investigate it. So far, all the things I've ever investigated have been areas that appeal to me from my own personal taste. Country music is not the type of music that appeals to me. But that doesn't mean it's bad.

"I heard one thing that I really liked once. Ray Stevens had a hit on Erroll Garner's 'Misty,' which kind of blew my mind. I saw him perform it live at the Grammy Awards show in Los Angeles, and it was really swinging. It knocked me out. It was country, but it had a groove that wouldn't quit. Little experiences like that make me personally curious about country music. I just want to find out what it is that people feel in that music that turns them on."

There's really no limit to what Hancock wants to do in music. He's eager to try it all. "Another thing I haven't done that much is work with large orchestral settings, and I want to do that. And the only multimedia work I've done is with movies or TV. I haven't really done anything with dance. There's a lot of things left to do. I haven't covered all the bases yet. There's always room for growth."

Adapted from an article originally published in The Aquarian Weekly, August 22-29, 1979.

[Herbie Hancock has continued to his eclectic leanings over the years since the above 1979 interview. Three major 21st-century recorded collaborations with musicians across a wide spectrum offer an enjoyable body of clear evidence: Possibilities (Vector/Hear Music, 2005), River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007), and The Imagine Project (Hancock, 2010). Coming off his 2012 Grammy win for the latter album, he has embarked on a Spring 2012 tour in what looks like a traditional jazz setting, accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums.]

Selected Discography

Herbie Hancock, The Imagine Project (Hancock, 2010)
Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007)
Herbie Hancock, Possibilities (Vector/Hear Music, 2005)
Herbie Hancock, Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998)
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, 1 + 1 (Verve, 1997)
Dexter Gordon, 'Round Midnight [soundtrack] (Columbia, 1986)
Herbie Hancock, V.S.O.P.: Live Under the Sky (Columbia, 1979)
Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: In Concert (Columbia, 1978)
Herbie Hancock, V.S.O.P. (Columbia, 1976)
Herbie Hancock, Man-Child (Columbia, 1975)
Herbie Hancock, Thrust (Columbia, 1974)
Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973)
Herbie Hancock, Sextant (Columbia, 1973)
Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970)
Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) 8022
Herbie Hancock, The Prisoner (Blue Note, 1969)
Herbie Hancock, Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968)
Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967)
Miles Davis, Sorcerer (Columbia, 1967)
Wayne Shorter, Adam's Apple (Blue Note, 1966)
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966)
Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine (Columbia, 1965)
Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) 38746
Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1964)
Herbie Hancock, Takin' Off (Blue Note, 1962)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Hans Speekenbrink
Page 2: Cees van de Ven

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