Herbie Hancock: Cafe Curiosity

Music Features Herbie Hancock
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“Yo, son, I’ll tell you everything you wanna know about Herbie Hancock,” says Hip-Hop Nick, my swaggering Lebanese Phishhead-turned-jazzbo-turned-B-boy-producer neighbor from down the hall. “I know that cat’s solos like some folks know words,” he brags.

Sitting at an upright piano he bangs out a note-perfect segment of “Actual Proof,” a funky cut from 1974’s Thrust, spitting the hi-hat part between his teeth. He then turns his attentions to the wistful title track of 1965’s acoustically questing Maiden Voyage, his eyes lost in the melody. Suddenly, he stops.

“Be sure to ask him about his acting. That scene on the boat in Indecent Proposal.”

Anything else?

“Oh, yeah, ask him when he’s gonna get with the ARP Odyssey shit again; all those vintage synths. You know, from ‘Chameleon.’ That shit was dope.”

Hip-Hop Nick, it should be noted, isn’t particularly down with what the legendary keyboardist is up to these days: guest spots with jam-rock behemoths Widespread Panic at Bonnaroo, a new version of the Headhunters featuring acoustic-pop heartthrob John Mayer (dubbed Headhunters ’05), and a partnership with Starbucks to distribute Possibilities, Hancock’s new duets record (due in late August) which guest-stars—to name a few—Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Sting and Phish’s Trey Anastasio.

But Hancock isn’t necessarily expecting people like Nick to be down with it, either.

“Starbucks is a very innovative company,” the 65-year old Hancock assesses from his Los Angeles studio. “You can see that from the business model they’ve set up. They have a brand, and I think that brand is very compatible with what this record is really about. They serve all ages, all demographics.”

So does Hancock who—taking a lesson from his former boss, Miles Davis—stopped worrying about the purists long ago. It was an attitude that led him to revolutionize fusion with the original Headhunters lineup in 1973, and turn a million kids onto turntables with 1983’s smash “Rockit” single, featuring Grandmixer D.ST. With collaborations the rage of the Billboard charts (not to mention the Grammys) it seems a fine reason for Hancock to try something new.

"I’m very conscious of the fact that artists are put into pigeonholes that are defined by whatever resonates first with the audience,” says Hancock. Tailoring a new collaborative approach for each session, Hancock cut everything from Billie Holiday ballads (“Don’t Explain” with Irish folkster Damien Rice) to fresh improvisations (“Gelo No Montana” with Anastasio).

“My feeling was that if they brought what they brought to the table, and I brought my years of experience, my curiosities—which is one of my motivations—would be satisfied. I was sure that the result would at least be beyond that pigeonhole. In many cases, maybe a third thing would result, that neither one of us could have done by ourselves.”

Coffee-fueled sales?

It also might move a bunch of discs—“collectively, these artists have sold more than 350,000,000 albums worldwide,” the promotional material reminds, veritably emphasizing the seven zeroes—and could send a lot of highly caffeinated folks scrambling to Amazon, iTunes and more renegade outlets to plunder Hancock’s brimming catalog.

There’s nothing like a high-profile investment in one’s past. “Herbie’s earned it, man,” Nick says. Besides, just as Hancock won’t bow to the purists, he won’t abandon them either. Hancock has been playing mostly acoustic piano since 2001’s electronica-infused Future2Future, releasing the acclaimed Directions In Music, a tribute to Davis and John Coltrane, with guitarist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, in 2002.

The long and short of it is that Hancock is pretty fly for a 65-year-old. “I actually used vintage instruments on this record,” he says in response to a slightly more genteel phrasing of Nick’s question. “Well, actually,” he pauses, “for the most part, we didn’t use the original instruments, but we used the software version of the instruments. There’s an approach to the development of virtual instruments called instrument modeling...” which the former double major in composition and electrical engineering proceeds to explain.

Technology is an important tool for Hancock who, in 1996, founded the Rhythm of Life Organization to bring computers into underprivileged classrooms. A long-practicing Buddhist, Hancock frequently returned to the idea of possibilities as an expression of his spirituality.

“When I was much younger,” he reflects, “I used to listen to music constantly. But as I grew older … my expression as a musician stopped being a priority, and the expansion of my life became a priority. And that opened up more possibilities for me as a musician.”

As such, Possibilities is a sincere communication of Herbie Hancock in 2005. If selling albums at Starbucks is the early-21st-century equivalent of going disco, no one should worry: Hancock actually went disco and subsequently recorded 1983’s Future Shock—one of the most forward-thinking and influential jazz LPs since the ’60s—as a direct result.

So, when a man who unquestionably powered epochal shifts in popular music in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, says he’s doing something—be it collaborating with Sting or applying a sample-heavy “environmental approach” to playing with a symphony orchestra, as Hancock’s been working on lately—it’s probably worth a listen. And if you’re in Starbucks, you might hear it anyway.

The Many Flavors of Herbie Hancock: A User's Guide

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Solo in the ‘60s Maiden Voyage (1965) is straight-up acoustic post-bop jazz. On the title track, Hancock’s solos sound at each moment like they could resolve back to the main theme or sail further into abstraction.

Miles! At the keys in Miles Davis’s second great quintet, from 1963 to 1968, Hancock helped Davis lay the lush acoustic foundation for the ethereal, electric classic In A Silent Way (1969).

Electric Madness Striking it solo, Hancock’s work grew increasingly adventurous. Sextant (1972) is an uncompromising avant-funk masterpiece. On “Hornets,” flighty brass squalls freely over ominously chattering electronics.

Funk Fusion If the sizzling funk of Head Hunters (1973) and Thrust (1974) sounds cliché today, it’s only because it provided the blueprint for nü-jazz mainstreamers like Medeski Martin & Wood and Galactic.

Starting from Scratch Besides a hit video that fired up a generation of turntablists (see Doug Pray’s Scratch documentary for testimony), Future Shock (1983) saw Hancock roving the eight-bit moonscapes of producer Bill Laswell.

And Beyond Hancock is game for anything, from Nirvana covers on New Standard (1995) to reconvening the Davis quintet (with Freddie Hubbard subbing for Miles) on V.S.O.P. (1977). The cream is never far away.