Hancock’s hour

It was in 1963 that pianist Herbie Hancock got the call from Miles Davis to join what was to become one of the greatest acoustic jazz bands of all time. Weaned on rhythm and blues – he was born in Chicago – but classically trained and self-taught in jazz, Hancock’s hard-edged impressionism and pin-point rhythms ushered in acoustic linear freedoms and the focused beats of amplified fusion.

Hancock is now 70 and his musical achievements are so firmly established that even a whole-hearted embrace of the popular mainstream has failed to dent his jazz credentials – his latest album Imagine features Pink and John Legend, and that’s just the first half of the first track. We will see how firm this embrace is next weekend when he appears at the Royal Festival Hall as part of this year’s London Jazz Festival.

It might appear that Hancock is diluting jazz to extend his commercial appeal, but there is always more to Hancock’s projects than meets the eye. And if his recordings have the odd jazz-lite moment, his live shows carry hefty chunks of freewheeling improvisation.

“We’re using the song ‘Imagine’ as a springboard for a concept of, and then to promote, peace through global collaboration,” Hancock, who is an adherent of Nichiren Buddhism, told me during a London break before his current tour. As he outlined the recording’s logistics and development, his purpose became clear. Not content with combining musicians from diverse cultures to play original material live, he wanted to record as much as possible in the performers’ countries of origin.

The first track was recorded in Mumbai – Hancock was in India anyway for another project, as was Chaka Khan, who also performs on the track. Called “The Song Goes On” and based on a poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, it features sitarist Anoushka Shankar and has a highpoint saxophone solo from Wayne Shorter, which was overdubbed at a later date.

Hancock knew he wanted to record in multiple languages, and was looking for a woman singer to perform a Hindi version of Rilke’s poem. When producer Larry Klein found the perfect candidate by searching iTunes – Hancock felt that “some female Indian singers sound a little strident, and we wanted someone a little more mellow” – it turned out to be a multilingual process. Chitra, chosen for her vocal tone, was a south Indian Tamil who did not read Urdu. “We had to take the Urdu, and use the romanised phonetic spelling of the Urdu pronunciation, and she was able to sing it in Hindi.”

Even the most manufactured-sounding elements turn out to have had ad hoc beginnings. Hancock’s sinewy, emotionally ambiguous introduction to the title track was a live-recorded afterthought, and the opening vocals by Pink equally unplanned. Pink had finished the track for which she was brought in but on the spur of the moment “wanted to do something live with me”, said Hancock.

Hancock’s embrace of mainstream pop can be traced back to 1996 with the release of the album New Standards. But it wasn’t until 2008’s Grammy album-of-the-year River: The Joni Letters that the pianist moved on from treating vocals as sounds. “Now”, he said, “even in live performance I try to think much more about the images of the lyrics.”

Hancock has always had a close relationship to rhythm and blues, though, citing the Hi Los as an early influence (along with Debussy and Ravel). “I was brought up in a black neighbourhood in Chicago, the blues was part of the culture,” he said. He started classical piano lessons at seven and four years later was good enough to win a chance to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At 14 Hancock heard a classmate performing jazz at his school’s end-of-term concert. “Here’s this guy playing an instrument I’d been playing for seven years, and doing something I didn’t know how to do, which is to improvise and play jazz-rhythmic music,” he said. The classmate suggested George Shearing as a starting point and Hancock never looked back.

In 1960 he joined Donald Byrd’s band, and two years later released his first album for Blue Note. Then came that call from Miles Davis, at the heart of a musically turbulent decade.

“The 1960s were a very important time in history,” said Hancock. “A lot of new combinations of thinking were happening at that time. Civil rights was a huge issue. The war was an issue. Women’s rights were an issue.” And in jazz, the avant garde was in full bloom. “We were influenced by the times,” said Hancock, “and we were evolving. We developed this way of playing that Miles described as ‘controlled freedom.’” Music didn’t just reflect the issues of the time: it could, Hancock said, “show the other side of the human spirit, the imagining of a brighter future.”

Miles Davis was not the only person to notice Herbie Hancock in those early days. The film director Michelangelo Antonioni asked the pianist to compose the soundtrack to his film Blow Up (1966). “I saw it and I didn’t have a clue what it was about,” he said. Nevertheless, Hancock’s soundtrack perfectly complemented Antonioni’s images and later commissions followed, including the orchestral score for Death Wish (1974). In 1983, also in London, Hancock worked with Godley & Creme on the video for his hit single “Rockit”. As well as being among the first hit singles to feature DJs scratching turntables, it was also among the first music videos featuring African-Americans to be shown on MTV. According to Hancock, only Eddy Grant had appeared before him, and, at around the same time, Michael Jackson.

He hopes that The Imagine Project will also be a force for change. But it always comes back to the music. As he left to be photographed, he suddenly turned back to say that he never finished what he was saying about Wayne Shorter’s overdubbed sax solo. “He just improvised off of hearing it for the first time, and that’s what’s on the record. It was perfect. And it couldn’t be any better. It was wholly spontaneous. It was as though he was there.” The gigs will be pared down to two vocalists supported by an instrumental quartet but the freewheeling spirit will surely be the same.

Herbie Hancock is at the Royal Festival Hall, London, November 12-13, www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk

European tour to December 8, www.herbiehancock.com

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