Herbie Hancock just might be the most famous jazz musician on the planet – probably because he doesn’t confine himself to playing jazz. Especially in recent years: the 74-year-old legend’s last three genre-bending records have fused pop, R&B, folk and world influences, featuring vocalists from P!nk to Paul Simon, Seal to Santana, Tina Turner to Tinarwian, John’s both Mayer and Legend... from Chaka Chan to Christina Aguilera to Leonard Cohen and many more in between. The middle of those three LPs, Joni Mitchell tribute River became the second ever ‘jazz’ record to win the Best Album Grammy in 2007.
Of course before all this style-fusing crossover, elder statesman business Hancock earned his jazz stripes with the best. After signing to the iconic Blue Note label and releasing breakout hit ‘Watermelon Man’ in 1962, a year later the pianist was recruited by none other than Miles Davis – AKA the best-selling and most influential jazz musician of the past 60 years. As a member of Davis’ historically-feted ‘Second Great Quintet’, alongside fellow then-young luminaries Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Hancock and co revolutionised jazz with a ‘time, no changes’ approach that broke harmonic confines, redefined rhythmic rules, and generally played rings around everyone else in the business. Arguably, the small group acoustic approach to jazz has not been bettered or furthered since, as evidenced when each of the band's players plugged in to pioneer the electric jazz-fusion evolutions of the ’70s.
Alongside Shorter’s Weather Report, Herbie was at the forefront of these electric endeavours – his 1973 jazz-funk LP Headhunters remains the second best-selling ‘jazz’ album to this day (behind Miles' Kind of Blue). Similar innovations were made fusing jazz with the emerging hip-hop turntablism on 1983’s Future Music and electronica on 2001’s Future 2 Future, the pianist plugging the gaps with returns to his acoustic roots and supergroup tours with the best players in the business.
Listen to our beginner’s guide to Herbie Hancock
The last decade or so have seen Hancock rightly embraced as a US national treasure and an icon of its greatest musical art form. In 2011 he was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, in 2013 he joined UCLA as a ceremonial professor and a year later followed in the shoes of Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky to be named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University.
Perhaps it’s forgivable, then, that Hancock has been musically quiet since 2010’s The Imagine Project, an ambitious conceptual fusion LP recorded with legions of collaborators over a period of years and in seven different countries. But aside from the above engagements Hancock has kept busy, he tells us, penning a forthcoming memoir Herbie Hancock: Possibilities, preparing for a summer tour with fellow legend Wayne Shorter and a 2014 duet tour with Chick Corea, and working on a collaboration with electronic producer Flying Lotus.
Still, in 2014 Hancock’s website lists just one live engagement to date, a headline-stealing date at the Abu Dhabi Festival on Friday March 21. It was a few days before this gig we caught up with the legend at the Emirates Palace Hotel. What followed was a fascinating 30 minute conversation, the musical legend warm, inspiring, funny and profound as he opened up about politics, poetry, inspiration, Miles and music. Here’s some of the highlights...
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On the inspiration behind his genre-hopping approach.
I always look to do something that I haven’t done, and that makes a great challenge for me – because I’ve had a lot of records over my career. And I also want to do something that nobody’s done. So I look to life for the inspiration. I don’t just look at music, I look at what’s happening today in the world – what is it that moves me, what is it that either encourages me or what should we be focusing on and encouraging in others – I look to that for inspiration.
On the world today.
Who would have thought that the kind of battles that people are fighting would be happening in the 21st Century? It just seems ludicrous. And at the same time we have questions about climate change, concern for everyone, and I believe in order for many of those problems to be solved humans beings really have to come together in peace. I believe that what we’re experiencing now is a kind of birthing process, and giving birth is painful. These are painful times, and I think what’s going to emerge is a much more humanistic world. A world where people will actually come together and listen to each other and find new solutions to issues that we’re dealing with today.
On his recent appointment to teach ‘The Ethics of Jazz’ at Harvard University as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry.
It’s a professorship of poetry, but it’s an expansion of the word ‘poetry’ to mean the poetry of music, the poetry of art in various forms. It is a huge honour, when I look to see who my predecessors were for this professorship, those are big shoes to fill – Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, TS Elliot – it’s a huge list of people. And they told me the reason I was selected is not just because of my music, but because I’m the cultural ambassador for UNESCO, and I’m also a teacher involved with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and professor at UCLA, and I’m also a practicing Buddhist of 41 years now. It’s called the 'Ethics of Jazz' – but I talk about creativity, I talk about cultural diplomacy, I talk about Buddhism, innovation in technology, various subjects.
On working with Miles Davis...
The great thing about Miles is that not only is his playing brilliant, but that he sets up an atmosphere that is so encouraging for the musicians he’s working with. That gave us very young musicians the opportunity to flourish. It was so encouraging and empowering, we were free to really be able to do our best.
...and the biographical charge that he was fired from the band in 1968.
Well, fired is a strong word. Replaced is actually more accurate, because there was a reason that took place. Miles already knew that I was leaving the band, I hadn’t concretely decided when... I already had a record contract before I was with Miles, but I never really got a chance to play my songs when I was with Miles. I had already been with Miles like five and a half years. What happened was there was a situation that allowed Miles to hear Chick Corea with the current band... because I had gone on my honeymoon, I had gotten food poisoning, and I couldn’t get back to this gig. So Chick replaced me temporarily, and then Miles realised Chick could actually do the job... So it made sense that I was asked to make my leave then, rather than later. I understood it and I knew it was going to be difficult – because the band was so powerful... it would have been very difficult to leave without some kind of kick in the behind.
On his love of electronic instruments, which dominated his ’70s and ’80s work.
I [thought] ‘here are some new sonic opportunities’. First of all I was already into technology, ever since I was a kid. So for me there are new elements available, why not expand the palette by including these new sonic possibilities? And that’s what I did. I was into science, I was always curious, and this was new and fascinating. In was easy for me to embrace synthesisers and computer technology.
But he’s always returned to the piano.
I love playing acoustic piano. That’s my foundation. Somebody asked me a question in Harvard – ‘when you’re moving forward, why is it that you go back into playing acoustic music?’ And I said ‘just the fact that you’re opening the doors to go forward, doesn’t mean you have to close the doors behind you’. I’m just being inclusive, adding to the palette, adding to the possibilities.
On his next album, a collaboration with electronic producer Flying Lotus.
I really enjoy the interaction and dialogue with other musicians, and being able to provide some sonic atmosphere for them to play in, and to bounce off ideas in the moment, that’s what jazz is really about. There’s a guy named Flying Lotus that I’ve been in cahoots with, from the electronic area. We’ve got some different stuff that he’s doing. I suppose people would put him in the category of electronic music. But to just describe it that way really misses the mark, there are a lot of different influences on the music he’s done, and some of it’s been very modern classical, some R&B, some maybe hip-hop, there’s a jazz influence – it covers broad territories which is one of the reasons I’m interested in working with him.
On what goes through his head while improvising.
I try not to think... but first of all that’s the funny thing – I say try not to think. The reason I express it that way is because I try to be, I try to focus on the moment. And yes, there are things I’ve learned about harmony, about textures, about sound, about scales and all of those things. But rather than focusing on them, if through part of my own intuition those elements have an effect on it, that’s fine. Those are in my tool shed, so to speak. It’s just like having a conversation, like we’re doing, we have words in our tool shed, but we’re more concentrating on what is it we want to express, what is it we want to transmit from yourself to the other person. So I’m more interested in what I want to transmit to the audience, and what I’m feeling at that moment, rather than what are the tools I want to draw on to express that feeling. I don’t think about them, I just reach out for them, and grab whatever is there at the moment.
On what’s next for the elder statesman of jazz, who turns 74 on April 12 2014.
I’m interested now in a visual component for my performances. I’m working in that area with some other devices that allow me to use my hands in the air – think Minority Report. I haven’t really done anything with visuals before and I’m interested in adding that component. We’ll see where that goes. Other than that a lot of my concentration is on sharing my experiences with the younger generation, and I’m very much open to including young people, their input in my music. There are newer generations coming up all along, so consequently I have the advantage of those new ideas that influence me to come up with some things I never thought of before. It’s a dialog that hopefully will be a part of my direction all the way into future.
Herbie Hancock performs at the Abu Dhabi Festival on March 21 at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. Doors open 6.30pm, concert starts 8pm. Find out more www.abudhabifestival.ae