JJ 04/80: Beyond the Mainstream: Herbie Hancock

An interview and assessment of the pianist's jazz-rock work by Elliot Meadow. First published Jazz Journal April 1980

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Herbie Hancock Group promotional shot from Columbia. Left-right: Kenneth Nash, WahWah Watson, Paul Jackson, Herbie Hancock, James Levi, Bennie Maupin

I’ve known Herbie Hancock for seventeen years and we’ve often discussed the difficulties created by change, particularly the difficulties for audiences who like to keep their favourites securely pigeon­holed.

‘I haven’t left anything, its just that now I can’t play the same type of music all the time. The older I get, the more deeply I want to explore different areas’

In Hancock’s case, the murmurs of discontent from his public were first heard with the release of the 1973 ‘Headhunters’ album. The music appeared to be a radical departure from the Hancock of albums like ‘Maiden Voyage’, ‘Empyrean Isles’, ‘Speak Like A Child’ and ‘Mwandishi’ – not to mention the pianist’s contributions to the Miles Davis band from 1963 to 1968. ‘Headhunters’ was deemed to be crossover or fusion music – descriptions that were used by some to imply that Hancock, among others, was now playing music far beneath his capabilities instead of acknowledging that he was simply ‘fusing’ his lyrical warmth, melodic clarity and harmonic inventiveness to a simpler rhythmic base.

Since ‘Headhunters’, Hancock has further investigated the possibilities of simpler forms with albums like ‘Thrust’, ‘Secrets’, ‘Sunlight’ and most recently ‘Feets Don’t Fail Me Now’. At the same time he has maintained his desire to continue playing the music that first brought him critical and public acclaim as is evidenced by the V.S.O.P. albums and concert tours featuring Hancock with Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. There has also been the duet performances with fellow pianist Chick Corea. Hancock’s adventures within rock and/or disco appear to have in no way affected or diminished the powers of his basic foundation.

On his first album as a leader, the 1962 ‘Takin’ Off’ date for Blue Note, Herbie had a hit with his song Watermelon Man. This came shortly after he had arrived in New York as a member of trumpeter Donald Byrd’s quintet. Hancock had joined the quintet in his native Chicago when Duke Pearson left. Talking about Watermelon Man and it’s success in relation to his current material, Hancock pointed out “I’ve never specifically looked for a hit record, but curiously enough I may have had a more commercial reason for writing Watermelon Man than I had in writing the material for the ‘Feets Don’t Fail Me’ album. I wanted something on the ‘Takin’ Off’ album that would help get the record off the ground. I was pretty much unknown and I felt that something like Watermelon Man would balance the straight ahead nature of the rest of the date. The reason I’m into the music on ‘Feets’ is because I like it, period – it’s not just for the purpose of selling records. It’s a learning experience for me, finding out about other idioms and that’s something I’ve always tried to do.”

‘Creativity in pop forms of music is in terms of how fresh can you be in repeating something that you’ve played before. It’s like the type of creativity involved with classical music because that form is set’

I asked Hancock if he felt there was as much creativity involved with his current music as there had been with his earlier output. “It’s a different type of creativity. In terms of jazz, creativity is judged primarily by how original the thought is. Creativity in pop forms of music is in terms of how fresh can you be in repeating something that you’ve played before. It’s like the type of creativity involved with classical music because that form is set – you’ve got specific notes that you play and you don’t add to them, but each time you play that piece you have to make it sound as fresh as the first time. That’s much more difficult than original thought, at least it is for me. I can rattle off a jazz solo very easily but to play something I’ve played before and put the same amount of energy into it and project the sense of freshness is very difficult, but what it means is if I can do that with this music it’ll be so much easier to project that freshness into all the other areas of music that I might want to play, whether it be original of the moment or predetermined. It’s an interesting and excellent type of schooling for me right now.

“In the kind of music I’m playing in the pop area the technique is a problem – not that of fingering or anything but the technique of understanding the idiom so as to know which part you are supposed to play. All of it is not predetermined though it may sound like it. Rhythmically, it’s improvised. It’s the same type of improvisation that happened with the sextet I had in the late 60s and early 70s. However the effect is achieved without the melodic complexity and a different kind of rhythmic complexity than the music of the sextet needed, but the intensity and the feeling are the same. It’s similar to not needing to use big words to express something profound. You can use simple words and if you put them together in the right way it can convey more than if you had used a complex framework”.

Given that Hancock is in effect catering to two fairly distinct audiences, the young record buyers picking up on the disco/funk context and the older audience remaining with the V.S.O.P . and Hancock/Corea albums, did the pianist find that he was having to think of giving priority to one over the other? “Not really. For example, both the ‘Feets’ album and the duet set with Chick were ready for issue at the same time last year. I wanted to bring them out at the same time. I wanted to show the different aspects of my music. In concerts, what I try to do is present the audience with a spectrum that includes solo piano, straight ahead jazz and the disco/funk concept. All these areas are part of me. Now perhaps the people who come to hear me because of songs like I Thought It Was You or You Bet Your Love, songs that have been single successes, will hear in the course of the concert some music of mine that they are unfamiliar with, will enjoy it and perhaps it will help to expand their musical interests. On the other hand, for the people who are into acoustic jazz, they may be exposed to an aspect of music that might expand their interest in pop music and maybe change their opinion about what I’m trying to do in areas other than jazz.

“For myself, I hear in the music of today the influence of the music that I was involved with in the past and for that reason I don’t forget where I came from. Not too long ago, I went out and heard Sonny Stitt at a club in Los Angeles. I sat in with him and played some bebop. Funnily enough, I think I can play it better now than I could five or ten years ago.”

In almost twenty years since Hancock emerged from Chicago he has been a vital force in an astonishing variety of different musical contexts – pianist with possibly the most influential band of the 60s, that of Miles Davis; recording frequently as a valuable sideman with players as diverse in their approach as Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond, Quincy Jones, Dexter Gordon, Grachan Moncur or Jackie McLean – the list is seemingly endless; leader of his own sextet; writing for movies and television; being a member of the elite clique of New York studio musicians. To all of the above Herbie has brought originality, taste and warmth.

“I can’t say that anything has been denied me musically but there are still some areas I haven’t fully explored yet. I haven’t done very much with symphony orchestras. I did as a kid in Chicago but that’s different. I’d like to get the opportunity to write for large orchestras and maybe perform some concerts in that setting. I like the variety that is available. I really enjoy doing movie scores for that reason because it gives me the chance to write different types of music that I might not normally have the outlet for.”

In response to my asking if there was any one particular environment he enjoyed being involved with above all, Hancock further proved his openness to challenge in music. “The funny thing is the music I enjoy most is that which I’m working on at the given moment. I guess that makes sense otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Perhaps Herbie Hancock has been misjudged by that faction who refuse to accept the need for change so necessary to an artist’s continued growth. The pianist is obviously as aware of the essential today just as he was when he started out. Whether it be You Bet Your Love or a jazz classic like Maiden Voyage, Hancock still brings to all he plays a deep sense of commitment and feeling that denies any sense of simply going through the motions. As he states, “If you just play the notes, you haven’t played the music. Feeling is the most important ingredient and that applies to every kind of musical endeavour.”

Mr. Hancock continues to live up to that credo.