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Sons of Miles
by Mike Zwerin
1 April 1999

Herbie Hancock is streamlined. Even the name hums right along there.

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 different musicians.

"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."

He 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.

The 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" repertoire.

Herbie Hancock

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.

He 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.

Perhaps not 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 Today."

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 Marsalis.

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!

Photo: Herbie Hancock
Credit: Christian Rose

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