Herbie Hancock is streamlined. Even the name hums right along
His piano playing flows smoothly, with a minimum of
turbulence. He moves with the grace of a racer, his handsome face
reflects clear thinking and he streaked in front of musical trends for
something like 20 years.
Hancock sprinted between
disco-soul-funk and his straight-ahead jazz roots. More than any other
jazz musician he has managed to preserve two opposing personalities -
one for loose acoustic swing, the other for the commercial exigencies
of electronic pop.
And more than any other electronic
musician, he is given credit for developing commercial uses of new
hardware such as the voice modulator. Two of his 1980's albums - the
pop "Lite Me Up" (CBS), on which he sings, and "Third
Plane" (Milestone), on which he plays piano with Ron Carter,
bass, and Tony Williams, drums - seemed to be made by two entirely
"Lite Me Up" sounds like
airport music, or perhaps a track for a "Starsky and Hutch"
TV series. "Third Plane" is hard-driving, high-level,
esoteric improvised music.
Jazz circles generally look down
on singers as unfortunate commercial necessities. The "chick
singer" with big bands and her male counterpart, no matter how
talented, were to be put up with, period. They were people who took
away from instrumental time. "I used to feel like that, yeah,"
Hancock defends his own singing.
"I had very little
respect for entertainment in general. It used to be considered cool to
just stand on stage and not even pat your foot. The theory there goes
that the energy it takes to make your body entertain should be saved
for your notes. Now, you can choose to do that if you like, but you
can also choose to be a sight as well as a sound."
was 20 in 1960 when he subbed in Donald Byrd's band for one night in
Chicago. Byrd hired him and Hancock's first album as leader yielded
his first hit, "Watermelon Man." From 1963 to 1968 he was a
member (along with Carter and Williams and Wayne Shorter) of Miles's
hottest jazz band. (Twenty years after Miles gave birth to the cool.)
Hancock reorganized the acoustic piano in a basic way. McCoy
Tyner was doing something similar with John Coltrane at the same time,
but mainly it was Hancock who spread the keyboard almost literally by
including previously ignored upper and lower octaves. As he increased
the range of the chords, he reduced their thickness so that fewer
notes covered greater territory.
He voiced in fourths, which
implied modality, but by carefully choosing what notes to play and,
more important, to leave out, chordal characteristics were maintained.
This pillow of tense, ambiguous sound Hancock devised was the perfect
bridge to bring Davis out of bebop toward more open forms.
tunes Hancock wrote during this period and directly after - "Maiden
Voyage" and "Dolphin Dance" for example - were
deceptively simple. Un- cluttered melodic lines with a minimum of
chord changes, repetition, plenty of space, rhythmic patterns becoming
part of the melody itself; these tunes embodied the musical elements
of "less is more." They have by now entered the "standard"
Today, when students learn Hancock's standards, they learn his
chordal voicings with them, and though he devised them 30 years ago,
they still reflect what is considered the hip, modern sound.
went out on his own in 1968 and his album "Mwandishi" was
named one of the 10 best records of 1971 by Time magazine. He
attracted attention for his score to the Michaelangelo Antonioni film
"Blow-Up." In 1973 his "Headhunters" became the
biggest selling jazz record to date and put him - or rather half of
him - firmly along the soul-funk-fusion road.
coincidentally, at the same time as he was becoming a hot commercial
property, he converted to Buddhism, and after that when he traveled he
was accompanied by bells, candles and bowls - spiritual technology -
as well as a hand-held computer and publications like "Computing
But he bounced continually back to his
mainstream; with VSOP, an all-star group with Freddie Hubbard and
Wayne Shorter, in the late '70s, then with Chick Corea in an acoustic
piano duo, and later he put together a quartet with old sidekicks
Carter and Williams, plus the 20-year-old trumpet whiz Wynton
Hancock produced Marsalis' first record for CBS,
which sold 120,000 copies. Marsalis was promoted as a saving grace for
jazz, and the next King of the Trumpet. He was indeed an awesome
player, but his record sounded like Herbie Hancock circa 1972, which
either showed that Herbie was ten years ahead of his time or how
little jazz had moved after him.
"What's music supposed
to be about anyway?" Hancock asks without waiting for an answer. "Is
it a means for a musician to masturbate, or is it for people to listen
to? I know a lot of people don't approve of the fact that I make
commercial music, but I think that my records selling gave more clout
to jazz. I'm not patting myself on the back, but the fact is they did
sell a lot and jazz does sell more now than it did before that and
it's just possible that me and people like Weather Report and Chick
Corea had something to do with it."
The striking thing
about Hancock is how much he appears to enjoy making commercial music.
Necessity does not even seem to enter into it.
Not to put
words in his mouth, understand, but it's as if he's saying...wow! All
these electronic toys to play with and I even get them free, they let
me fool around in the studio as much as I like and they actually pay
me to sing. Man, if this is selling-out, it sure is fun!