Pianist-composer-producer Herbie Hancock is, in so many ways and on so many levels, the quintessential jazz artist. Actually, not just jazz artist — music artist might be a better way to put it.
As hard as it is to believe, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock, born April 12, 1940 in Chicago, is now 70 years old. And to his credit, he is as enthusiastic today about the music he makes and listens to as he was at any point in his long and remarkable life and career.
He also continues to be exceptionally diverse. His latest album, “The Imagine Project,” is like going on a world tour.
Indeed, the album was recorded in the United States, London, Paris, Brazil, Ireland, Mali and beyond. In addition to an array of world artists, “The Imagine Project” brings together many of this country’s best, including John Legend, Pink, India.Arie, Jeff Beck, Los Lobos, Dave Matthews, Chaka Khan, Wayne Shorter and, of course, Hancock.
This is music not to be forgotten. It is music for the ages. Something special and outside the box. Which brings to mind Hancock’s belief that many artists, although successful in one particular genre, long to try other things. Several had that opportunity with “The Imagine Project.”
CONFINING Herbie Hancock to a “box” is as futile as attempting to contain the wind.
“I’m always interested in looking forward toward the future,” he said. “Carving out new ways of looking at things, creating new avenues and new visions of music. The spirit of jazz is the spirit of openness.”
Considering the degree of his artistry, attention to detail and high production values, it comes as no surprise that Hancock got his earliest training in the classical field, starting at age 7.
However, in due time something else began to catch his ear — jazz — mostly by way of the recordings of notables such as Oscar Peterson and George Shearing.
“I think I was supposed to play jazz,” he remembered. “It pulled me like a magnet and it was a way that I could express myself.”
IN 1963, Hancock’s skills came to the attention of one of the icons of jazz, Miles Davis. Although Hancock was only in his early twenties, Davis recruited him for his band. Wayne Shorter, who plays on “The Imagine Project,” was also in that band. (This was one of several Davis bands, and one of the most important and influential.)
“Miles’ sessions were not typical of anybody else’s sessions,” said Hancock. “They were unique.”
It was only logical that he would begin making his own records. Signed to the famous Blue Note label, he turned out a long string of popular albums, including “Maiden Voyage” and “My Point of View.”
In 1969, he switched from Blue Note to Warner Bros. Around this time he was fascinated with Miles Davis’ groundbreaking, rock influenced, electronically enhanced sounds on “Bitches Brew,” the album by way of which fusion was virtually created. That being the case, Hancock recorded albums such as “Mwandishi” and “Crossings.”
Believing that “jazz is about being in the moment,” and being true to yourself, he made a daring move with the more rhythmic, R&B slanted “Head Hunters” in 1973.
HANCOCK mostly turned a deaf ear to the narrow-minded jazz purists who said he was “selling out.” He preferred to view it as broadening his musical horizons.
In 1983, he pressed even harder with an album titled “Future Shock” that featured the hard-hitting, exciting, danceable, party-ready “Rockit” which became a Top 10 R&B hit. He would even cut a few dance moves while performing this song on stage.
He had not, however, abandoned “real jazz,” despite what some of his critics believed. In fact, he wrote the score for the film “’Round Midnight” — starring jazz great Dexter Gordon — and won an Academy Award in the Original Music Score category for his efforts.
In the mid-1990s Hancock joined forces with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wallace Roney to pay homage to Miles Davis. The album, “A Tribute to Miles,” won a Grammy.
Hancock, in 2005, again proved how open he was to collaborations, including with non-jazz artists. Because it featured artists such as Carlos Santana, Sting and Paul Simon, the album was fittingly titled “Possibilities.”
“River: The Joni Letters,” a tribute to Joni Rivers, featured contributions from the likes of Corinne Bailey Rae, Tina Turner and Norah Jones.
Hancock has been honored many times. In addition to the Oscar, there are 12 Grammys, several MTV Awards, a Soul Train Music Award, four Keyboard Magazine Readers Poll Awards, and election into the Downbeat Magazine Readers Poll Hall of Fame, among others.
Herbie Hancock loves the freedom of jazz and believes it is “the tool to express life and all that makes a difference.” — SVH and Jason Donovan