10:34am

Mon December 6, 2004
Columns

Herbie Hancock on JazzSet

Decenber 12th JazzSet features Hancock

At 8:00 pm on WMOT Jazz-89 on December 12th, JazzSet honors Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note in NY. Hancock is honored as he moves into his fifth decade of keyboard greatness at the leading edge. Hancock's style, greatly influenced by Bill Evans, mixes introspective and energetic elements, and fuses blues and gospel influences with bebop and classical elements. Gary Thomas is on tenor, Scott Colley on bass, and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums in this performance from 2004's Toast of the Nation.

If not for the amazing reign of Miles Davis, pianist Herbie Hancock might qualify as jazz's most well-known, popular performer since the '60s. Hancock had 11 albums chart during the '70s and 17 between 1973 and 1984, including three in 1974, figures that puts him well ahead of any other jazz musician in the '70s and beyond. He's also among jazz's finest eclectics, having played everything from bebop to free, jazz-rock, fusion, funk, instrumental pop, dance, hip-hop and world fusion. He's both a great accompanist and excellent soloist, whose voicing, phrasing, melodic and interpretative skills and harmonic facility were impressive early in his career, and remain sharp no matter what style or idiom he's working.

Hancock began studying piano at seven and performed the first movement of a Mozart concerto with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a young people's concert at 11. He formed his own jazz ensemble while attending Hyde Park High School. He was influenced harmonically by the arrangements Clare Fischer provided for The Hi-Los and Robert Farnon's orchestrations of pop songs. Hancock had begun working in Chicago jazz clubs with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins when he left Grinnel College in 1960.

Byrd invited him to join his group and Hancock moved to New York. After he recorded with Byrd's band, Blue Note offered Hancock his own pact. Hancock's debut Takin' Off was issued in 1962 and yielded a hit with "Watermelon Man." He joined Miles Davis in 1963. Hancock's solo style became an integral part of Davis' evolving '60s approach. His interaction with Ron Carter and Tony Williams was at the core of songs that increasingly became more flexible and less fixed, while Hancock also cut important albums as a leader for Blue Note and gained status as a composer. Some major compositions during the '60s included "Maiden Voyage," "Dolphin Dance," "Speak Like A Child" and "I Have A Dream" dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the '70s Hancock led a sextet that merged jazz, rock, African, and Indian musical references and was mostly electric. This band was one of the great jazz-rock groups, though Hancock finally disbanded it due to the group having limited market appeal and financial success. The Sextant group sometimes performed in African garb, and Hancock even issued the album Mwandishi with the musicians African names given along with their English ones. He was playing many electronic instruments, adding the Hohner Clavinet, various synthesizers and Mellotron to his Fender Rhodes.

Hancock disbanded The Sextant in 1973 and formed The Headhunters, a funk, rock and instrumental pop band that scored a huge crossover hit with the album Headhunters. Hancock's records were now being played by the emerging upper and middle-class black professionals who for the most part had little or no knowledge of his past sound. The single "Chameleon," which reflected the influence of accompanists in Sly Stone's band, was a club and radio smash in edited fashion. Hancock turned more to strict pop music, though he also did an acoustic V.S.O.P. tour in the late '70s and a series of duo concerts with Chick Corea. He repeatedly defended his right to make any and all kinds of music, and often labeled criticism of his commercial projects "elitist," an extension of the charge that some Black nationalists leveled against the '60s free players.

During the '80s, Hancock alternated between acoustic and electric material. He had another big hit in 1983 with "Rockit," a song that utilized the scratching technique and predated its popularity in hip-hop production with a multi-textured, heavily edited snippet/rhythm framework. The video and single gained Hancock MTV coverage and exposure, and triggered a fresh round of debate over whether he was selling out. Hancock spent the next two years doing mostly conventional jazz dates, even winning an Oscar for his score of the film Round Midnight. Hancock collaborated with African musician Foday Musa Suso for a fine duet album that made the charts as well. He toured Europe in 1987 with Buster Williams and Al Foster, and did a series of American and Japanese dates with a quartet that included Mike Brecker, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Hancock also hosted a variety show on the Showtime cable television network, and did lecture/performances on public television. He's done numerous albums for Blue Note, Columbia, and Warner Bros. The lengthy list of musicians Hancock's played with reads like a jazz who's who; it includes Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, George Coleman, Johnny Coles, Bobby Hutcherson, George Benson and Paul Desmond, among many others. His versatility and track record ensure Hancock will never have difficulty getting recording opportunities. It would be silly to insist everything he's done was great, but much of it, even his most commercial, trendy dates, has retained a high level of musicianship and attention to stylistic detail. His most recent work takes pop standards and reinterprets the as jazz, again showing his ability and free-thinking.