In six decades in music, Herbie Hancock has transitioned from young hotshot in one of Miles Davis’ great quintets to guiding light for a new generation of music innovators including Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus.
Now 78, Hancock maintains a busy schedule, recording, teaching at UCLA, serving on the board of the recently renamed Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, also at UCLA, and touring. This week, Hancock will be in the region for a couple of shows. The first, at UNC Greensboro on Feb. 12, is sold out. He will also play at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts at Appalachian State University on Feb. 13.
The legendary composer and keyboardist took a few minutes to talk with the Winston-Salem Journal earlier this month. Here are excerpts:
You’re approaching 60 years as a professional musician and have a career that covers a lot of ground. What areas of your career do focus on in your concerts?
It’s not a retrospective. We do some things I haven’t recorded. I kind of delve into pieces that some audience members may already be familiar with from my past. It’s a hard thing to do because I’ve been around so long, how do you satisfy all those people? I have excerpts of pieces I’ve done before and try to put together in a whole new way.
What do you consider before starting a new project?
That varies. The first question I ask myself is what is my purpose for making a new record? What do I want to achieve? What do I want to share with people? What is the point? What might I want to awaken in people and how can I be in the present and not just in the past? Consequently, my latest record, I’m working with a lot of people. Terrace Martin is the primary producer on the record (Martin has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder among others).
We have more work to do. We’ve got some hip-hop artists on it, some rappers, and pop singers. That’s what I’m getting ready to bring out. I’ve been working on this record for years now. It’s the longest I’ve ever taken.
How many of your fans came to you through “Rockit”?
A lot of people. Even very young people who were 5 or 6 years old when it came out say it was their introduction to me. And as years went by, they looked at things I did in the past, and it opened this new territory called jazz, for them.
Do you have a favorite Miles Davis story?
There’s one that seems to resonate with most people. We were doing a concert tour in Europe, and I think it was Sweden. That concert was the hottest one. We were really on. We had the audience in the palm of our hands. We were maybe two-thirds of the way through the concert, everything was peaking, and Miles took his solo on one of the tunes, and right in the middle of that solo I played this chord that was so wrong. I wanted to crawl under the floor. Inside, I was oh no what have I done? Miles took a breath and then he played some notes that made my chord right. It blew my mind. What is this magic? How did he do that? It took, me years to realize something very important in personal growth. Miles didn’t judge what I played, I did. He just heard it as something new that happened, and that is what we always try to do in jazz. Whatever happens, we try to make it work. That’s one of the great beauties in the ethics of jazz.
You can’t reject it. It’s already in the air. What can we do to make that part of music? It’s a great lesson we should apply to life.
That leads into my next question on what role can jazz play in today’s divisive times?
One of most important points is that being judgmental can have a positive place when there’s something dangerous involved. But for the most part, being judgmental is a very negative attribute, and it’s something we should only carefully apply and not apply it like mustard on a hot dog. We should use that rarely.
The master of modern jazz, Herbie Hancock is innovative, influential, a living legend and will close the 2019 Melbourne International Jazz Festival at Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne with two concerts in June.
“We are excited to make this early announcement and extremely honoured that Herbie Hancock is returning to Melbourne to close the festival,” said Melbourne International Jazz Festival Artistic Director, Michael Tortoni. “Our festival program will continue to offer a diversity of experiences that will showcase many outstanding Australian and international artists.”
With an illustrious career spanning into its sixth decade and a staggering 14 Grammy Awards, there are few artists who have had more influence on acoustic and electronic jazz, R&B and hip hop than Herbie Hancock. Miles Davis said in his autobiography “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”
The author of modern day standards such as Cantaloupe Island, Chameleon and Rockit in addition to hundreds more, Hancock’s appeal transcends genres while maintaining an unmistakable style. Hancock’s standing and influence on modern music has produced iconic partnerships with artists ranging from Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Annie Lennox to Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus and Pink.
Any opportunity to see Herbie Hancock live should never be missed. See this icon of modern music take to the Hamer Hall stage with a hand picked band to close the Melbourne International Jazz Festival for 2019.