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In the Tradition

Herbie Hancock Looks Back, Looks Forward, Looks Alright

By Piotr Orlov | Posted 9/26/2001

The portrait of an organized artist as a multitasking whirling dervish goes a little something like this:

Sixty-one-year-old keyboardist and living jazz legend Herbie Hancock is gracefully gliding around a Manhattan hotel room, juggling a hectic schedule. He has just returned from a taping of Future Wave, a BET show he hosts about technological gadgets. He is in the midst of conducting numerous interviews focused on his new Bill Laswell-produced, beats-oriented Future 2 Future (Transparent), an album co-starring a diverse roster of music luminaries that range from young guns such as Detroit techno producer Carl Craig and turntablist DJ Rob Swift to longtime collaborators like saxophonist Wayne Shorter and (in one of his final recorded performances) the late drummer Tony Williams.

At the same time, Hancock is fielding questions about and putting the final touches on an all-star tour called Directions in Music, celebrating the 75th birthdays of two of jazz's most highly esteemed figures, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Hancock and his tourmates, saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Jon Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, will pay tribute to the musical breakthroughs of the two giants by performing their "hits" as well as lesser-known pieces.

Asked how he balances two seemingly polar artistic pulls--being subject to a tradition while continually pushing its boundaries--Hancock replies, "One is what I am exposed to, and the other is what I do."

Anyone who has followed Hancock's five-decade career should well understand that he takes pride in both jazz's historical continuum and in furthering its scope. If he had done nothing besides serving as pianist in Davis' legendary mid-'60s quintet (alongside Shorter, Williams, and bassist Ron Carter), Hancock's name would already be written in the tomes. Instead, his first big sideman stint was only a prelude to an ensuing career as a composer ("Watermelon Man," "Cantaloupe Island," and "Speak Like a Child" are among his numerous classics); his foreshadowing of much techno culture with electro-acoustic ambient jazz ensembles (most specifically, his Mwandishi and Sextant groups of the early '70s); his construction of at least one funk-fusion monument (1973's flawless, multiplatinum Headhunters); and his embrace of hip-hop at its cultural dawn (with 1983's Top 40 hit "Rockit").

With Future 2 Future, he again conceives a fruitful marriage of tradition and innovation. While Laswell contributed collage-style production and recruited the compatible futurists--"I'd never heard of [these] young people; I did not even know what kind of music they were into," Hancock concedes--the famed keyboardist brought the brand name and the knowledge of how to sculpt soundscapes that bop and groove. The result is one of the most organic unions of cut 'n' paste technique and improvisation to date.

Hancock's résumé, along with his continually expansive vision, gives him freer reign to get on a "state-of-jazz" soapbox than most of his younger colleagues. This includes his view of the biggest jazz event of 2001, the broadcast of Ken Burns' Jazz documentary series, which professed comprehensiveness but went almost out of its way to downplay the multitude of jazz breakthroughs to happen after 1960.

"The good news is that [Jazz] brought a lot of immediate attention to the general field of jazz, to the history of jazz. But the bad news is it limited its attention to the history of jazz. [Burns] devoted, what, two hours to the [last] 40 years?" Hancock asks with a rhetorical grin. "Something's wrong there. The impression that it left is that all the great stuff and all the great [jazz artists] have not only been born and have produced, but they're all dead. And that what we have and what we are honoring is a dead art form, like classical music, which I don't agree with at all. Also, it seemed to kind of be the Wynton Marsalis show, one person's opinion speaking for the rest of us, and, in fact, he was speaking for very few of us."

The contrast between the derisive sneer Jazz brings on and the glow Hancock's face assumes when discussing his association with Miles Davis is priceless. Hancock has little trouble putting into words the importance of his apprenticeship with the late, great trumpeter.

"I was 23 when I first joined [Davis' group]," he recalls. "Most people are very open at this time of their lives, soaking up information like sponges, and to work with a great master like that at that time of my life was a great privilege.

"Many of the lessons I learned from Miles, I later understood weren't just music lessons. Like the idea of risk-taking. Miles lived like that. I don't mean that in the negative aspects that presented themselves on occasion, but that Miles was a guy who really responded to the moment, and was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in. He played like that and he lived like that."

Inevitably, it was Davis who set Hancock and the rest of his bandmates on a journey of exploration that is more about sheer creation than mass fulfillment--a journey Hancock continues to this day.

"Miles always encouraged us to not worship the idea of impressing the audience--that's not what we were trying to do, totally the opposite," Hancock says. "He wanted a whole other level, to take the risk, to express how you felt moment to moment, and to be vulnerable and be honest, and to listen and not be afraid of trying things that don't work. Miles would rather that we tried things that didn't work than to safely play in an area we knew always worked. He would have fired us if we did that, but if we played mistakes all the time while constantly searching for new expression, he would never fire us."

That sense of exploration is inherent in all of Hancock's work. It's not just in the electronic grooves that are the fancy of his newest recording--typically for the restless Hancock, a 180-degree turn from '98's Gershwin's World (Verve), on which Hancock tackled George's standards--but in the way he approaches all his projects, even his current music-of-the masters tour.

"I always try to find original ways of doing things acoustically," he says. "I even try to find new ways of doing straight-ahead records, make music with my spin on it, not just in improvisatory ideas, but in the overall concept. I don't let the tradition limit me."

Herbie Hancock's Directions in Music tour stops at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Sept. 30.

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