- 12 Apr 19
Herbie Hancock, a pioneer of the post-bop sound, has collaborated with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Kendrick Lamar, as well as our own Chieftains and Lisa Hannigan. To mark the jazz legend's 79th birthday, we're revisiting his interview with Colm O'Hare, originally published in Hot Press in 2010.
Herbie Hancock is that rare thing: a true jazz legend who has managed to cross over into the contemporary music world while still retaining the respect of the community from which he came.
In the 48 years that have passed since the release of his debut album, the classically-trained keyboardist has kept one foot firmly rooted in the jazz camp while also exploring funk, fusion, hip hop, pop, soul and world music. From his early hits such as ‘Watermelon Man’, ‘Cantaloupe Island’ (later sampled by US3 on ‘Cantaloupe’) and ‘Chameleon’ , to playing in Miles Davis’ seminal 1960s ensemble, to his groundbreaking funkified 1973 opus, Head Hunters, he has consistently sought out new musical directions. In the mid 1980s he scored a massive hit with the techno/electro album Future Shock and the MTV award-winning single, ‘Rockit’, regarded as one of the first hip hop hits.
Over the years, he has operated something of a dual career, releasing straight jazz albums on labels such as Blue Note and Verve while pursuing various ambitious collaborative projects often with big names. His 2005 album Possibilities featured artists such Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon, Damien Rice and Sting while his 2007 tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album ever to win the award after Getz/Gilberto in 1965. His latest album The Imagine Project finds him collaborating with a host of contemporary names such as Pink, Seal, Dave Matthews and James Morrison (as well as our own Chieftains and Lisa Hannigan) on covers such as John Lennon’s title track, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A-Changing.’
“I was looking for a reason and purpose to make another record,” he explains, on the line from New York. “I wanted to do a record that addressed some issues of today and I was thinking about the economic crises here in America. I was thinking about globalisation, which a lot of people were expressing fear towards. I wanted to do something to promote a very different viewpoint. The idea was about taking John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and using it as a springboard and making a record about peace. The Imagine Project really is about hope for a bright future, where we are all one.”
A committed Buddhist, Hancock says the 21st century will be “the century of globalisation” and that the album reflects a positive vision of the future: “My feeling is that it’s neither good nor bad but it’s unavoidable and it would be better to be proactively involved. I felt passionately about it and then someone came up with an idea that resonated with me – that’s how these things usually start.”
For Hancock, who turned 70 earlier this year, the Imagine Project is just another chapter on a long musical journey that has also seen him work in film soundtracks (Blow Up, Round Midnight) and even TV commercials.
“I’m really fortunate in that I’ve had a lot of highlights in my long career,“ he says. “It’s what I wanted to do from a young age. I first started playing piano when I graduated from elementary school. They asked me what do you want to be when you grow up and I said ‘I want to be a concert pianist’. By the time I graduated from high school I had heard Oscar Peterson and George Shearing and was beginning to play jazz. I’ve Bachelors of Arts in music but I also did electrical engineering for two years – on my parents’ insistence as a way to make a living – until the music took over.”
He says that his engineering background made him open to new technologies, which would become important later on in his career. “Having that analytical mind helped me to learn a lot of things much faster. I took a more intellectual approach to playing than a lot of other players at the time. Because jazz is intuitive and in the moment I also have that side of me which depends more on feeling.
“I never knew there would be a day that I could apply both skills until synthesisers came along. I was comfortable with them – I understood the terminology and I knew what stuff like ‘ohms’ and ‘resistance’ were, so for me, it was a comfortable. A lot of musicians didn’t have that training and might have felt intimidated. The same thing happened with computers – I got my first computer back in 1979 and I was one of the first to use the Fairlight synth on records.”
Hancock plans to continue recording and touring for as long as he can. In concert, he revisits different areas of his career to date as he explains: “I like to do a bit of everything I’ve done over the years – what we’re playing on this tour includes one piece from The River, several from The Imagine Project and numbers like ‘Chameleon’, ‘Watermelon Man’ and something from Head Hunters. We also do a medley of four or five pieces from my very earlier days on Blue Note, including ‘Speak Like A Child’ and we include material from the Round Midnight soundtrack.
“I love playing and I feel younger in many ways than when I was actually young and my health is still good although I will admit that I dye my hair! (Laughs) But everything else is real.”