Jazz icon Herbie Hancock brings rare solo tour to Twin Citiesby David Cazares, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Herbie Hancock has performed around the world in a great variety of settings. But until recently, he's never been interested in the kind of solo piano tour that brings him to the Twin Cities on Friday.
From his work with the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s to his jazz funk and fusion groups and his collaborations pop artists, Hancock has long thrived off the interplay and dialogue among musicians that sparks spontaneous creation.
Given the pianist's expansive repertoire, even he acknowledges that it's difficult to reproduce the variety of moods and sounds he has explored over half a century. But Hancock promises to do so at Orchestra Hall, using technology that allows him to have intricate and eclectic musical conversations with himself.
"This is not your garden variety solo piano tour," the pianist recently said from Los Angeles. "I mean, the first image you have is one guy with an acoustic piano on stage. This time, it's one guy with an acoustic piano and a synthesizer and a computer."
Through his computer and its synthesizer-like effects, Hancock will be able to recreate and the sounds that have made him a forward-thinking performer for half a century. Just as guitar players have a pedal board to activate distortion and delays, he'll be able to manipulate the many sounds in his eclectic repertoire.
Although the pianist is rooted in a storied jazz tradition, he's not wed to it.
At 70, Hancock can draw on a vast body of work that includes bebop, funk, rock, and electronic music - a varied approach that has won him multiple Grammys and captured much younger fans.
Hancock has earned his iconic reputation. He came of age while playing with Miles Davis, the incomparable jazz trumpeter who changed musical history.
In the early-to-mid-60s, the Miles Davis Quintet was a band of leaders: saxophonist Wayne Shorter on saxophone, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and Hancock. Although jazz fans were accustomed a walking bass line and a swinging drum beat, Davis was turning away from tradition. He chided his musicians when they strayed into bebop, a form he helped pioneer, with its often fast and furious notes.
Instead, the celebrated trumpeter focused on modal jazz. He demanded that his band leave space in the tunes -- for thoughtful improvisation and openings that allowed the listener to concentrate.
Hancock's playing on those albums was lush, a nod to the classical composers who inspired him: Ravel, Stavinsky and Barttok. He's also influenced by master jazz pianists Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Horace Silver and by contemporaries Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.
Under Davis, Hancock learned that bands were also about concepts -- and that musicians could pursue their own paths while following a demanding leader's overall direction.
"Miles is the guy that really encouraged his musicians to always work on stuff, always explore new territory, to work in that unknown area -- not just in your comfort zone but outside the box," Hancock said.
This wasn't lost on the pianist, who incorporated mentor's methods into his own work, delivering a string of innovative albums -- "Empyrean Isles," "Speak Like a Child" and "Maiden Voyage" - while developing his own voice as an instrumentalist and composer. He understood that his compositions should be musical stories with movements, much like classical compositions.
Hancock also took note of his mentor's later shift in direction. Mindful that the times were changing, Davis would soon make a dramatic leap, making music that moved with the times. Not wed to the past, the trumpeter sought to make relevant music in the late 1960s and early 70s, a time when the streets pulsed with iconoclastic emotion and many traditional jazz artists lost their connection to the masses.
Davis also wanted his musicians to keep an eye on the audience, telling them that a crowd with too few women was a sign the music wasn't happening.
"What he says is, if you look out in the audience and all you see are cats, your stuff is over," Hancock recalls.
The trumpeter made big waves with "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew," sparking a musical revolution by blasting an electrified jazz that fused with rock and funk and added percussion.
Hancock was already leading his own groups, but he sat in on those sessions, as he did in 1971, on "A Tribute to Jack Johnson," an explosion of sound. Though John McLaughlin plays a mean guitar on the track "Right Off," Hancock is in the moment, making a powerful and percussive statement on keyboards.
Like his mentor, Hancock picked musicians who could help execute his changing vision, one that would include heavy doses of funk.
From 1969 to 1973, his sextet thrived on teamwork, producing spontaneous music with no regular changes, bars or tempo, Hancock recalled later. But the music nevertheless had a structure and order.
In the early 70s, younger fans were increasingly turning to earthy beats, and jazz musicians found themselves in competition with large African-American funk bands like Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang and the Ohio Players.
Hancock was among the jazz musicians to capture the new groove, and one of the first to use synthesizers. But he did so within a jazz context. His compositions developed as suites that were part of a larger whole within albums that carried the listener on a complete journey.
The recording that changed everything for Hancock was Headhunters. Released in 1973, it was the first jazz album to go platinum. With the hit tune "Chameleon," it took Hancock from respected jazz musician to jazz-funk superstar. The music had a strong drum beat and lots of rhythm but left plenty of room for Hancock to take off in wide open improvisation.
Lots of purists probably didn't consider the music jazz. But from college campuses to city streets, Hancock was in touch with the people. By expanding the music with new sounds, he knew he was on to something. He still thinks so today.
"I really believe that jazz is a great music, and a lot more people would respond to it -- if it's cultivated in a way that can work for them," he said.
In the 80s, Hancock stuck with his alternative vision on "Future Shock," which also went platinum - and made him a force in modern pop. The single "Rockit," a hit on the dance and r&b charts, was miles away from bebop, and won a Grammy for best R&B instrumental.
With it, the pianist won new fans, many of whom would explore his earlier works.
"A lot of people told me that they got into acoustic jazz from the 'Rockit' or the Head Hunters album, some records that I did where I explored more pop or r&b or funk direction," he said.
Such beats have made him one of the most sampled artists in the music business, and as long as the lyrics are not obscene, he doesn't mind. Sampling, he said, helps broaden the jazz audience.
"If they take a song of mine with samples and take it apart in any way they seem, they want, and put it back together in a whole new way, I'm pleased," Hancock said. "I don't care what they do with it. I already did mine."
In the last decade, Hancock has taken a different track, collaborating with pop musicians, and recording jazz versions of pop songs.
Most notable was his 2007 release of "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to Joni Mitchell. Backed by impressive instrumentalists like his longtime friend Wayne Shorter, Hancock also featured vocalists Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, Leonard Cohen and Mitchell. The album won two Grammys.
With "The Imagine Project" last year, Hancock became a cultural ambassador, recording songs with international pop stars, among them Pink, The Chieftains, Brazilian star Ceu and Juanes, Colombia's pop-rock phenomenon.
Though the music has been derided in some quarters for having a "We Are the World" music telethon approach, the album won two Grammys, including best improvised jazz solo. There's no denying that it helped Hancock further expand his reach.
For Hancock, such collaborations point the way to what's possible.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "None of those songs could have come out in the way they came out had I not had those international influences."
At Orchestra Hall, the pianist's challenge will be to tap enough moments of his storied career to please a diverse collection of fans, each of whom brings their own expectations.
Hancock said he typically plays his signature songs -- "Cantaloupe Island," "Dolphin Dance," and "Maiden Voyage Chameleon" -- which covers a lot of territory.
"I can be on the road to satisfying certain expectations that people might bring to the concert hall in just playing these songs," he said. "Now the way I play them hopefully is different than what they have at home because otherwise why would they come to see me up on the stage. I might as well play tracks, and pantomime the whole thing, you know. So I can give a different perspective on these songs every night."
Here's Hancock recording with Juanes for "The Imagine Project."
For information and tickets to see and hear Herbie Hancock, visit the Orchestra Hall website.
David Cazares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.