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liveDaily: liveDaily Interview: Herbie Hancock

liveDaily: liveDaily Interview: Herbie HancockiveDaily Interview: Herbie Hancock
June 29, 2005 12:01 PM
by Jim Harrington
liveDaily Contributor
Herbie Hancock (bio) has played with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century during a storied career that has spanned five decades. The A-list features such names as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Michael Brecker.

Later this year, the acclaimed pianist/keyboardist/composer will attempt to balance the scales in the pop world with the release of "Herbie Hancock: Possibilities." The CD, which is scheduled to drop on Aug. 30, is a star-studded event along the lines of Carlos Santana's "Supernatural" and Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company." Based on the stellar lineup that Hancock has culled for the project, "Possibilities" could be just as big as either of those Grammy-winning blockbusters.

Hancock hardly played it safe with this project, which will be a joint release on Starbucks' Hear Music label, Hancock Music and Vector Records. Hancock assembled a wildly diverse, and potentially dangerous, assortment of talent from both the pop and rock realms for the album. The Chicago-born bandleader called upon such crafty veterans as Santana, Paul Simon and Sting, but also chose some relative newcomers like Damien Rice, Joss Stone and Raul Midon.

It's not hard to envision Hancock collaborating with Phish's Trey Anastasio, given that both of their backgrounds are drenched in freewheeling improvisation. The selection of John Mayer and Jonny Lang, two young guns that draw from blues traditions, also makes sense. But, truly, only a Nostradamus-like visionary could ever have predicted that Herbie Hancock would someday join forces with Christina Aguilera.

Besides the new album, Hancock is also exploring new possibilities with his landmark '70s band the Headhunters. The pianist recently revived the funky ensemble, which he has dubbed Headhunters '05, to play at the annual hippie-fest known as Bonnaroo. The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that Hancock now plans to take the band on the road. The tour will hit Japan and Australia before likely touching down in the U.S. in early 2006.

Hancock recently spoke to liveDaily from his office in Southern California.

liveDaily: You've always come across as a very open-minded artist, one who clearly isn't afraid to explore new musical avenues. In that regard, the title of the new album, "Possibilities," seems very appropriate. But I'm wondering what the title signifies to you?

Herbie Hancock: I am always interested in going beyond the comfort zone, going beyond the expected, going outside the box. I think that's where new concepts are created.

How are you going beyond your comfort zone with this record?

Well, I've never worked with most of the artists on this record. My foundation basically is in jazz, although I've ventured into a lot of different areas over the years with the same type of spirit found on "Possibilities." When I first did that Headhunters record, back in 1973, I had never played a synthesizer before. All the records I had done before, I'd played acoustic piano. So it was a whole new venture.

The same thing came with the record "Future Shock," which contained the single "Rockit," in the '80s. Here I was venturing into an area that I knew nothing about, which was the hip-hop scene. I had just heard scratching for the first time about a week before we recorded "Rockit." For me, it's fascinating working in these new areas. It always stimulates my blood.

It's the same thing with this project. I am working with various names, names associated with pop music, with kind of alternative rock and with rock/Latin. The spirit of "Possibilities," instead of being directed in one area alone, is directed in a lot of different areas. The other way the term applies to this record is that when I first thought about putting together a list of artists that I would be interested in working with, my curiosity was, if we got together and they bring what they bring to the table, a sort of newness and freshness, and I bring to the table what I bring to the table, which is experience, what would [happen]?

Obviously, you've worked with enough jazz artists to fill a hall of fame. Do you have to take a different approach when working with pop artists than you do with, say, Wayne Shorter?

I don't expect [pop artists] to know a whole series of chord changes, for example. I don't expect a great deal of technical knowledge from pop artists. Jazz musicians, by and large, know the technical aspects of music. You get to the higher-level players and that just becomes part of it. It's part of their talent. They don't even have to think about it. In fact, when I work with Wayne Shorter, we try not to think. We try to go beyond thinking.

The language that pop musicians work off is not as rich as [that of jazz musicians]. But it doesn't diminish the value of it in any way. So, I know how to get from one chord to another in a million of ways, and someone who is proficient in the blues only knows a certain number of ways. But that's not really the issue. I've made my decision about what I want to do with my life musically and so have they.

How did you go about making your wish list for who you wanted to have on the album?

I thought about people who I had never worked with who I might be curious about working with. I also thought about artists who might have been pigeonholed. In a way, we've all been pigeonholed by whatever we first became popular for. Every external influence tries to keep you in that pigeonhole. But my feeling is that most artists are larger than what their public perceives them to be. I was hoping that if I got to work with these people that the end result would be to kind of open up those pigeonholes. I was hoping that we could explore other avenues of life experience through music.

One of the artists on the album is Carlos Santana, who obviously has some experience in these types of all-star recordings. Did he have any advice for you?

As a matter of act, he told me in the beginning, "I understand the type of record you are doing because I've done it. It's kind of your 'Supernatural.'" He said, "You have to really, 100 percent, want to do this." That was the primary thing that he said. He also said, "If you do [this project], call on me to help you in any way that you want and I'll help you in any way that I can." That was really great of him.

Let's talk about the material on the album. You cover a number a different tunes from a range of artists. Some selections, like the Billie Holiday number, were hardly shocking. Other choices, such as the Paula Cole cover, were more surprising. Can you talk a little bit about song selection?

Sting, for example, chose "Sister Moon." It was convenient. It was a song he had already written and so he knew the lyrics. But what I wanted was a new, special arrangement of it. So, I asked a friend of mine, a guitarist from Africa named Lionel Loueke, if he would be interested in making an arrangement that would kind of add that African spice, rhythmically, to it.

With the Paula Cole song, I had mentioned to her that I had certain artists that I needed songs for on this project. Later on, she submitted some things that she had written as possible selections for Annie Lennox. I narrowed the list down to a few possibilities and sent it to Annie. Annie liked "Hush, Hush, Hush" and so did I. There was just something special about that piece.

With Trey Anastasio, we actually just got to the studio and started improvising some things.

What was your previous connection with Trey?

I really didn't have a connection with him. That was a suggestion from the executive producers. I had two executive producers that helped in the selection process, you know, putting the master list of names together.

Trey is considered by many to be a guitar god. You've played with some monster musicians. I wonder how you feel he stacks up.

I don't usually do that. That's for sports. I don't pit people against each other. But he's an excellent guitar player. He's great at improvising. He's very open to trying things, which is great. I have a great admiration for artists who are not afraid to try things. He's a great human being, warm heart, very open, very giving and very humble. That's a great combination.

One of the more unexpected collaborations on the album is the track with Christina Aguilera. She gets a lot of press for what she is wearing, or not wearing, but, boy, she's really got pipes.

Wow. I knew she could sing. I knew she could really sing. But I didn't know she could sing like that. She knocked me out. She did her first take and I said, "Well, you nailed it." And she said, "Oh, no, no, no, that was just a scratch vocal." I said, "What? That sounds like a keeper to me." Her intonation was so perfect, I mean, not a flaw in it at all.

Let's change course, because I definitely want to touch upon the Headhunters. I understand you absolutely knocked fans out at this year's Bonnaroo. Tell me about Headhunters '05.

We originally put that together at the suggestion of the promoters of Bonnaroo. Headhunters has a certain cache, in a way, with the young market that they expected to attend that show. They thought it would be a cool idea to kind of revisit the spirit of the Headhunters, only make it Headhunters '05. Actually, it was primarily my idea to make it '05. I didn't want to be a band that was just remaking old Headhunters material. Although, since there wasn't really time to develop a whole new band with new repertoire, we did do several pieces that we had recorded with the Headhunters before. But we did several new things as well.

For Bonnaroo, I wanted to get a kick-ass band, and I was fortunate to be able to get one. I had Marcus Miller on bass. I had Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. John Mayer played guitar. We also had another guitarist, Lionel Loueke. Lionel Loueke is a new name and he's extremely talented. I also had Kenny Garrett on saxophone and Roy Hargrove on trumpet. And I had Munyungo Jackson on percussion.

Wow. That sounds like a great lineup.

It was hot at Bonnaroo. It was smoking. The audience went nuts.

Will that be the group that you take on the road for the Headhunters '05 tour?

That's the band I'm taking to Japan. John may not be able to go, I'm not sure. Kenny Garrett may not be able to go. And I may not replace him. It might just be one horn, Roy Hargrove.

With both a Headhunters tour and this all-star album on your plate, this could be a big next year or so for Herbie Hancock.

I'm looking forward to the way things will unfold. It should be great.

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