Herbie Hancock: Outside The Comfort Zone

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By: Andrew Bruss

Herbie Hancock
From Miles Davis and The Headhunters, all the way to the likes of John Mayer and Sting, Herbie Hancock‘s career has been preternaturally blessed with collaborative projects.

Hancock built his bones in the jazz scene over forty years ago, acting as the keyboardist for Miles Davis from 1963-1968 in what jazz critics call Davis’ “second great quintet.” However, as his career progressed, so too did his idea of what music should be. As he grew in age, his discography always expanding, he began to constantly broaden his aims beyond the jazz spectrum with the goal of frequently working outside of his comfort zone.

After a successful project with bassist-producer extraordinaire Bill Laswell, Hancock put out 2005’s Possibilities, an album that found the keyboardist jamming out with a new superstar on each track. Critics and fans alike used the term “sellout” but the creative approach Hancock took to the project was more akin to the style of Wu-Tang Clan‘s studio brainstem, the RZA, than what the music community has come to expect from aging jazz artists.

So as Hancock continues to take his Wu-Tang-meets-Sun Ra-esque approach to the studio, JamBase managed to catch up with him prior to a tour stop in Boston to discuss everything from Buddhism to the iTunes music store to his next studio album in a conversation that touched on the past, present, and future of a legend that has no intention of slowing down.

JamBase: You’ve been on the cutting edge of many different developing music scenes over the years. I’m curious about how you think the promotion of music has changed in the forty or so years you’ve been involved in the process.

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock: Technology has opened up some new areas for exposing, selling and distributing music. We’re finding that musicians have the ability to sell their own product on their own websites, and independent labels can develop and make deals with online music sites like the iTunes music store. It means that people can buy individual songs and make up their own compilations. They can buy iPods and pick the songs they want without having to buy the whole album with a lot of songs that they don’t want. It’s a whole different paradigm, in a sense. Instead of the label making the package, people get to make their own package.

JamBase: Seeing as how people are able to buy songs individually and leave chunks of an album out of their purchase, do you feel that this devalues the concept of an album as an individual piece of art? Or do you think it’s beneficial?

Herbie Hancock: If you set about thinking in the old way, which is you’ve got this package that fits on a CD that can only hold 72 minutes or whatever, when you put that product on the iTunes music store people may not buy the whole thing in that sequence. They might just buy individual songs. So, artists really don’t have to think in terms of an underlining theme for an album if they don’t want to. The last record I did was called Possibilities, and there’s an overall theme to it but not in a traditional way. In other words, there wasn’t a single subject. It was more of an idea about working outside of the box with myself and other artists. In a way, Possibilities was a compilation, in and of itself.

Continue reading for more with Herbie Hancock…

 
I never signed in my own blood that the only records I’d make were jazz records. I can make any kind of records I want to make. I like making music. It doesn’t have to be jazz. It doesn’t have to have a label.

-Herbie Hancock

 

On Possibilities you worked with artists such as John Mayer and Christina Aguilera, all the way to folks like Sting and Trey Anastasio. How did that project come about?

Herbie Hancock
Since ten or eleven years ago I’ve wanted to have each record that I do not only be different from the last record but different from anything I’ve ever done before. [I want it] to have its own motivations and its own function. So, I look for different kinds of challenges. Not only different from anything I’ve done before but I want it to be different from anything anyone else has done before. That’s what I look for. I try to find different ways to find a direction to express myself, and my feelings, ideas and beliefs. I believe in humanity and the creativity of the human spirit, not just the artist. It’s part of being a human being to be creative, and one of the issues people have is that they’re generally afraid to work outside their comfort zone. So, I like to work outside of my own comfort zone.

When I made Possibilities I was looking to do that. The theme, if you will, was for me to work with different artists in the pop field, artists outside of the scene that would be considered my comfort zone, which is the jazz field. This way we’re both working outside of our comfort zone. It was fun and it was challenging, but everyone really enjoyed the process. We all felt so free, which was another thing. We were free to explore. Fortunately, a lot of great things happened. I was able to own the project myself rather than giving it to a label, and I made a separate deal with Starbucks. This is also connected to the first question you asked me about other means of distributing records. Starbucks is one. Here is a facility that sells coffee, but they also sell records now. They’re selling books, DVD’s and all kinds of stuff. These are exciting times because the music business, per se, is in transition. If you keep your eyes open and look forward to carving out new territory – it takes a new and greater way of looking at things – [you] find what the real gems are in this new situation that’s being designed as we speak. We are now all the designers of the new music business.

As a jazz-oriented artist, what would you say to a critic who felt that by working with pop acts you were expanding your audience at the expense of your existing fan base?

Herbie Hancock by Eamonn McCabe1
First of all, how does the record sound? Does it sound good or not? The next thing is I never signed in my own blood that the only records I’d make were jazz records. I can make any kind of records I want to make. I like making music [laughs]. It doesn’t have to be jazz. It doesn’t have to have a label. As a mater of fact, I like the idea of using my jazz roots, which are crucial for me to express myself, in many different ways. If I hadn’t worked with Miles Davis, I wouldn’t have been able to make a record like Possibilities. The spirit of Miles is in the production of that album. That’s what this is all about – carving out new territory.

Something I found interesting about the criticisms aimed at Possibilities has been that a lot of people had very similar qualms with the Head Hunters. Back then, folks suggested you were selling out your audience by making a sound that’s more marketable. Interestingly enough, Head Hunters has grown to be one of your more popular albums. Do you think that this pattern of criticism suggests that listeners and critics are either scared or intimidated by new approaches to making music?

Herbie Hancock
Actually, for me, criticism is an indication that I’m doing something right. If I’m not being challenged then maybe I’m working in an area where I’m too comfortable. People aren’t always able to rise to the occasion themselves and end up working inside their comfort zone. That can also be true for critics. They may be so used to working within a certain framework that if one of the records they’re reviewing is outside of that framework they may have a hard time making the proper adjustment to really review that new viewpoint of music. They might be using their old standards to judge something that’s outside of those standards. And in that case, this [criticism] doesn’t really apply.

You can’t argue with that. To take things in a different direction, if you were talking to someone who was only exposed to your older material how would you explain the changes you’ve gone through? How would you articulate the progression your sound has gone through since you started?

I’ve been in the music business for over 40 years. When you say “older material” which material do you consider to be older?

Continue reading for more with Herbie Hancock…

 
Practicing Buddhism has brought several revelations to me. One of them is the realization that I am not a musician. That’s not what I am. It’s what I do… As a result, the way I approach music now is not from the standpoint of being a musician but as a human being.

-Herbie Hancock

 

Well, I was specifically referring to some of your early solo studio work like Takin’ Off or Maiden Voyage, but I suppose your work on albums like Miles In the Sky would certainly fit within the spectrum of the question.

Herbie Hancock
Well then, how do I describe my evolution? I’ve always had the advantage to work with people who’ve encouraged me to explore. Donald Byrd was the first person to hire me when I was a local musician in Chicago, and he took me to New York to work with his band. He was the one that opened a lot of doors for me, and helped me make my first album, Takin’ Off. He gave me some secrets for methods that helped train me to play some quick tempos. He always encouraged me to write music, and that was kind of a first step for me.

Working with Miles was important. He told us to work outside of the comfort zone. He paid us to explore new territory and to go outside of the areas that we knew and to go into the areas we didn’t know. Those kinds of lessons are what I’m trying to carry the spirit of because it’s been engrained in me. I like the challenge of trying to find another vision or pathway for self-expression. Consequently, when the idea of “jazz-rock” came around, before they had the word “fusion,” the first thing I heard was not Bitches Brew, but Tony Williams ‘ band, The Tony Williams Lifetime. That was before Miles did Bitches Brew. That was my first encounter with jazz-rock. A few years later, I did my own exploration and ironically it came out of me having a very avant-garde jazz group, which was heavily influenced by the avant-garde direction of the 1960’s. My experiences with Miles Davis started off as a fresh way of approaching jazz, but it continued to expand and gravitate towards a more avant-garde direction.

Herbie Hancock by Weintrob
Right after that time I started to feel tired of not feeling a connection to the Earth. I needed a complete about-face, so I did the album Head Hunters with synthesizers. I actually had a synthesizer player in my avant-garde group, Mwandishi, towards the end of that period, and he was pretty influential in my interest in synthesizers. So I made The Headhunters group and we made the Head Hunters record, which was a record where I played a Fender Rhodes piano and synthesizers with an electric bass player instead of an acoustic bass player, but, we were still playing jazz. We may have had a funkier kind of beat but as far as the improvisation was concerned it was just as far out as the stuff I did in general. It was a no-holds-bared approach to improvisation, similar to the general approach I took to playing with Miles. Anyways, that continued but I also went back to what we called the V.S.O.P. Band, and did a concert called V.S.O.P. – The Quintet. It was a group made up of members from the Miles Davis Band, and Freddie Hubbard, who I’d worked with on several records in the ’60s. And I did some more Headhunters work, and this all evolved into a whole new direction that came from the beginning of the hip-hop generation.

You’re talking about your album Future Shock?

Yeah, Future Shock

One thing that struck me was that you were talking about your connection to the Earth. Music is such a spiritual thing; I’m curious how your spiritual connection to Nichiren Buddhism has effected your music.

Herbie Hancock
The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it opens my life up. Music is really about life. It’s not about this chord or that chord. If it doesn’t have a connection to life then it really can’t have any real value or meaning. Practicing Buddhism has brought several revelations to me. One of them – which has been extremely important to my own personal development and consequently my musical development – is the realization that I am not a musician. That’s not what I am. It’s what I do. What I am is a human being. Being a human being includes me being a musician. It also includes me in being a father, a husband, a neighbor, a citizen and an African-American. All of these relationships have to do with my existence on the planet. Being a musician is just a part of it. As a result, the way I approach music now is not from the standpoint of being a musician but as a human being. It’s a much more fundamental foundation from which I create music. I’m so happy that I was able to come to this kind of realization because it’s opened up so many doors of creativity in my life that I never dreamed would be possible. People wonder, how is it that I make every record different from every other record? This has been happening ever since 1996 when I did a record called The New Standard. Every other record since then has been completely different from everything else, and it’s really due to this realization that came as a result of my practice of Buddhism.

The last thing I’d like to know is for fans of your music who may be reading this article, what would you like for them to know about the future of Herbie Hancock as a musician?

Herbie Hancock
First of all, I should tell you that I’ve just completed a new record that will be released in September. It’s called River: The Joni Letters, and it’s primarily the music of Joni Mitchell. Basically, half the record is instrumental and half has vocals, but what’s new about this record is for the first time, with all of the records I’ve done in the past, this is the first record where the lyrics are the primary focus. It’s the foundation for the record. I’ve never paid so much attention to lyrics before. I’ve hardly ever paid attention to the lyrics in my recording in the past. Most of the time they were instrumental records, and even though some of the tunes were written as songs, which had lyrics, I never really paid attention to the lyrics. I just paid attention to the harmonies. This is the first time that I really made the lyrics the core from which the music spreads, and it was a particular challenge for me as an instrumental musician. But, I really felt it was necessary for my own personal growth as an artist and for my cultural growth. As a result, again, it gave me a new viewpoint and a new approach to music, and it’s really reflected on the sound of this record. I’m really happy with it.

Herbie Hancock will be on tour starting August in Oyster Bay, NY. Full Herbie Hancock tour dates available HERE.

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