It’s possible to spend an entire lifetime listening to one phase of the legendary keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s six-decade career and never get tired of it.
One can put on Miles Smiles or E.S.P. or any of the stellar mid-1960s albums by the Miles Davis Quintet, and hear the sparks fly from the meeting between a veteran bandleader and a young, hungry group of players (Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams). Or you can dig into the adventurous albums Hancock was concurrently recording as a leader, among them the sublime Takin’ Off and its hit single, the immortal, trumpet-spiked groover known as “Watermelon Man.” Or you can skip ahead into the late ’60s, when Hancock followed Miles into the first flowering of jazz rock fusion on albums like In a Silent Way or Miles in the Sky.
And there’s so much more; the thrilling jazz-funk-worldbeat combo with a large ensemble on Mwandishi; the irresistibly danceable jam-R&B of Head Hunters; the forward-looking electronic groove of 1983’s platinum-selling Future Shock, with its era-defining single and video, “Rockit.” There’s even a Grammy-winning Joni Mitchell tribute album (2007’s River: The Joni Letters) that one could get lost in, a genre-spanning collection that includes appearances by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Leonard Cohen, among others, and is anchored by Hancock’s playful, intuitive piano work.
The only things that link these phases together are an adventurous spirit and a disregard for musical barriers.
“Genres and labels put music in boxes,” Hancock says. “We use them out of convenience, and I understand that. But music doesn’t need to be in a box, because that means it’s confined. Music should be free to be able to explore, to fuse, to mix, to combine, to make new hybrids. That’s what keeps it alive and flowing and growing. As soon as you start limiting it by putting it in a box, then the box is on a timeline to not being relevant anymore. And I think that that’s disruptive to the greatness of an art form.”
For his entire career, spurred on by his own independent streak and the artistic restlessness of mentors like Davis, Hancock has moved between styles with ease and grace, proving himself as masterful as he is unpredictable.
Onstage, with his stalwart rhythm section of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist James Genus and relative newcomer Terrace Martin on sax and keyboards, Hancock likes to keep the audience, and the musicians, guessing.
“We’re doing a lot of things I call ‘episodes,'” he says, “where we start with something and it evolves into something else, some other tune. Then that tune might get interrupted by another one that cuts through in an unexpected place at a different tempo, and then we’re off on that one. And then that stops somewhere, and one of the band members starts something new. It doesn’t mean the thing is over and there’s applause, but somebody comes in and does whatever they may want to do. So we’re playing with a lot of different things that get away from being confined to traditional structures, particularly traditional structures in jazz.”
Hancock is quick to add, however, that this is not mere improvisation; it’s more like lightly structured exploration.
“We work out how we want to proceed,” he says. “We figure out what the concept will be for starting a piece. Each episode is a different song or part of a song, or phrase from a song, something maybe people associate with me. So the audience never knows exactly what we’re going to do, when we’re going to do it or what it’s going to be. So, it’s constantly changing. But we’ve worked out within a given segment or episode how it starts and how it’s going to end, and what happens in between depends on what we decide to do when we put the whole thing together.”
The story of how Terrace Martin came into Hancock’s orbit is an excellent illustration of Hancock’s omnivorous musical curiosity. What other 77-year-old musician primarily known as a jazz player could so articulately sing the praises of Kendrick Lamar?
“A couple of years back, I was working with (DJ & producer) Flying Lotus on this new record I’ve been doing,” he says. “And he sent me a text saying ‘Listen to Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar. It’s an important record.’ So I got it, and it was an amazing record. And I listened to what was happening musically underneath these brilliant words, which were the truth and the story of his life, and of his environment and what he’s been through. I listened to the accompaniment for that. And it’s full of jazz elements, classical elements, funk elements, and even gospel. It’s an amazing piece of music, along with the words; it just moves through a lot of different avenues. I was so excited about it.”
Martin was one of the players on that record, along with other jazz-based boundary-breakers like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper.
“It was Glasper that turned me onto Terrace Martin,” he says. “His background is not just jazz, but also R&B, and rap and black gospel music, and pop music. So he has all of these influences, and can freely move from one style to another, because that’s part of who he is. And I got a chance to work with one of these cornerstone musicians of a new movement.”
And is it possible, perhaps, somewhere in the process of discovering musicians like Martin, Hancock might have seen a reflection of his own genre-defying work?
“I think that’s what made me gravitate towards them,” he says, “because it fits right in to my whole way of thinking about and looking at music.”