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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.

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