Herbie Hancock’s chord of appeal
“First of all, I’m a real techie guy,” Herbie Hancock says.
The renowned electronics omnivore, whose innovations continue to influence multiple musical genres, sits in a room decorated with faux Victorian furnishings and reproductions of colonial maps on the walls – the chairman’s-club aesthetic favoured by hotels worldwide.
“So, living at this time,” he continues, “at first it looked like, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for! Technology is king!’ ” Even his sigh has a rhythm to it. “Now I know a lot of issues are going to have to be answered – big, big ones – because people are going to be replaced by machines.”
In his navy zippered sweater and finely cut grey suit, the 79-year-old could pass for a soul-searching tech executive. His smooth hands clasped loosely, he makes a further confession – his vision of a world streamlined by computers never included Instagram.
“Social media is… difficult for me to get into,” Hancock admits, diplomatically. “No matter how big the artist is, no matter how huge their audience, they’re doing that –” he thumb-twiddles, the international hand sign of an automaton on a phone. “All the time, they are keeping up and keeping in touch with their fans, and…” he gives a rueful laugh, “I just can’t get myself to do that.” With everyone around him so relentlessly documenting everything, Hancock is sometimes sorry he doesn’t. “ ‘Herbie, why don’t you take a few pictures?’ ” he whispers, castigating himself, but then again, further snapping can seem superfluous.
The night before our interview, while he was on stage at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, the applause built as the all-star cast of an International Jazz Day concert took their bows. The audience – many of whom had come to get a glimpse of the legendary Mr Hancock – stood with their phones outstretched to capture this moment. Before long what they were capturing was musicians from around the world balancing their saxophones and zithers as they whipped out their own phones to record themselves alongside the show’s star.
Hancock looked only mildly baffled as his colleagues gripped his shoulders, leaning back for optimum selfies. Future shock comes in many guises.
For Hancock’s 50th birthday, his friend, the renowned producer Quincy Jones, found a copy of the local broadsheet from the day Hancock was born in Chicago. “You didn’t see any pictures of black people in there advertising anything,” Hancock says. “Those role models weren’t that evident.” But his parents, both born in the American south and members of the great northern migration, had middle-class aspirations. When Winnie Hancock noticed her six-year-old desperate to visit their neighbour Levester Corley’s apartment to play his piano, she decided to buy one for her son too.
Corley, Hancock says, “got in some troubles early on, he had to do some prison time and I didn’t see him after that”. Meanwhile, Hancock became a child prodigy, playing at the age of 11 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
By his early 20s, he was living in New York and word of his talent meant that when the high priest of jazz, Miles Davis, needed a new pianist, Hancock got the call. Confused as to whether he had even passed the audition phase, Hancock finally asked Davis if he was in the band. “You makin’ a record, muthafucka!” was the star’s reply.
From 1963, Hancock spent five formative years serving an apprenticeship with Davis, playing in what is known as the enigmatic, visionary trumpeter’s Second Great Quintet. The first, featuring John Coltrane, had recorded the masterpiece Kind of Blue.
Davis required a purity only a purist could endure. The quintet was warned not to bring their girlfriends to gigs because Davis could hear his sidemen start to musically preen. “Where is she?” he would ask, if one of the musicians flouted his order. “I know she’s here. Too much sugar in the music.”
Then there were the times Davis would walk over to the piano, mid-set, and mime cutting off Hancock’s hands. The pianist soon started to hear where he was adding unnecessary flourishes and lost any intimidation of silence on stage. Once, just before recording an album, Davis told Hancock not to use his dominant left hand at all. After panicking, Hancock realised this “opened up a lot of space within the song, which is exactly what Miles was looking for”.
Hancock’s style underwent its greatest transformation, however, when Davis approached him on stage and whispered, “Don’t play the butter notes.”
In his autobiography, Possibilities, Hancock details the soul-searching these five words elicited: “I had no idea what he meant, but I knew that if he’d bothered to say it, it was important. So I started to mull it over. What is butter? Butter is fat. Fat is excess. Was I playing to excess? Butter also could refer to something easy, or obvious … Was there something obvious about how I’d been playing? If so, how could I change it?”
Hancock stripped out the most harmonically obvious notes in his playing and in losing the fat, the ease, the butter, he discovered a versatility and range he hadn’t realised existed.
Years later, Davis would claim he had actually said – and now in the Melbourne hotel room Hancock replicates his former teacher’s rasping growl – “Don’t play the bottom notes.”
Hancock believes he was meant to mishear.
Over the years, Herbie Hancock has become increasingly drawn to Buddhism, wanting to fuse the open-ended nature of his spirituality with jazz so as to explore infinite musical possibilities. He made experimental electronic jazz with his band the Mwandishi Sextet in the early 1970s, then jazz-soul-funk with the Headhunters, before turning to jazz-inflected hip-hop in 1983, with the million-selling album Future Shock.
The iconic video for the hit song “Rockit” features a series of robots coming to life, which Hancock agrees has proved prophetic. “I was on TV in the ‘Rockit’ video and they threw me out!” He has a great laugh, rich, generous peals of it. “The only human in the house! And I wasn’t even there.”
Hancock’s life has been one of those grand-scale, sprawling American stories. Along the way, he has overcome a crack addiction and won 14 Grammys. His spirituality has been a constant thread in his life and art – his memoir describes the Buddhist chanting regimen he undertook to win the Album of the Year Grammy for River: The Joni Letters, bringing mainstream attention back to jazz. He says he hopes to live past 100 to continue the tale through as much of the 21st century as possible. Not that, so far, he always likes what he sees.
“In America, we have metal detectors in our schools. That’s crazy. Our founding fathers had muskets with, like, 5 per cent accuracy.” Hancock starts to riff on what should be the constitutional right to bear muskets: “You could buy them with bitcoins!”
“There’s so much division happening globally and I actually believe that this is one of the final stages we need to solve, and fix, and learn from in order to be able to tackle climate change. That’s either going to do us in or we’re going to fix it. We’ve accelerated this process so badly that the next generation is already looking at us, like, ‘What were you thinking?’”
One way in which Hancock is having this intergenerational conversation is through music. Just as Miles Davis mentored him, he is involved with various young artists, and is profoundly interested in how they make music, especially now that so much is produced using one of his great passions, computers.
Hancock knows there’s a “full circle” element to all of this. His music played a part in introducing a generation to the hip-hop scene, “but I didn’t follow it after that, I continued the jazz path. I knew it was going on. It went through its different iterations. It went through all the stuff about the bling and I didn’t want to be part of the language of what they called women. Not that the musicians didn’t live themselves a part of that life… that was the environment.
“I think with the younger generation, honesty is a really important virtue,” he says. “Like I mean – hip-hop artists have gone past this now – but they were making a ton of money and making it seem like, ‘I’m poor and mistreated’… I don’t want to overstate this, because no matter how rich these musicians were, they would be the first to be pulled over by the police, profiling. That is a reality.”
Hancock used to drive around in a Ferrari and “when things got really bad in LA”, he worried he would be targeted by the police. “I haven’t been pulled over where I had to lay on the ground, not that far, but I’ve been followed by cops and I think they looked at the licence plate and sometimes I think I got away because of my name.”
Hancock is still working, still making music. He is currently recording an album featuring some of the brightest stars in the hip-hop constellation – Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Snoop Dogg, Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus.
“I wanted to know: how is it to work with a guy who just does beats? Because my experience has always been with drummers,” he says. So, he is collaborating with Lamar and Sounwave, a 33-year-old producer who oversaw most of the tracks on the critically acclaimed Black Panther: The Album. “If I don’t hire young musicians, who’s going to be out at the clubs?” Hancock asks. “I don’t do that anymore.”
The first young hip-hop artist he wanted to work with was the experimental electronic musician Flying Lotus. “I knew he was doing some new stuff, getting a name for himself, and he has a family connection with the Coltranes [being the great-nephew of the late pianist Alice Coltrane] so he’s got these kind of jazz genes in him,” says Hancock. “I started first working with him and I wanted to be a fly on the wall because I wondered, ‘How does he make records? What’s the process he uses?’ It started there. And then, a few years ago, he sent me a text that said, ‘Get Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s an important record.’
“I went on iTunes and downloaded it. I started listening and the first thing I’m hearing is…” Hancock feigns the track’s lyrics, giving it a nice steady beat, despite himself. “He’s using the n-word, which a lot of rappers do, like a lot, right? And I know among black people it’s a term of endearment, but I just thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be one of these records.’”
He stopped it after one-and-a-half tracks.
“‘Wait a minute,’” he told himself, ‘“Flying Lotus says this is an important record. If I want to hear what this is, who is standing in the way?’ I realised it was me. And as soon as I said, ‘Okay, I want to hear this record. Put that reluctance down,’ I did that, and bammm! My eyes opened up and I heard what Lamar had to say. It’s a brilliant record. This guy’s a genius at how he tells a story, and puts words together, and how he delivers it. And in the background, what’s there?”
Hancock smiles and answers his own question. “Jazz.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Chord of appeal". Subscribe here.