Herbie Hancock

*Part of my extensive jazz series!*

Our visit to Nardis jazz club in Istanbul reminded me to listen to more Herbie Hancock (b.1940; website; YouTube channel; wiki), pianist, bandleader, and composer—a bit like Bach… Meanwhile Wayne Shorter has died, so this post should be read in conjunction with my recent tribute to him.

Herbie 1

Classically trained, at the age of 11 Herbie performed the first movement of Mozart’s 26th piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony—“but that’s not important right now”. Among his early works, he made a name with Watermelon man (1962; see here, and here):

He remains deeply grateful for his training with Miles Davis (see Miles meets Bird, and Some middle-period Miles) in their classic quintet with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams from 1963 to 1968.

He never told us what to play. He was just the opposite; he wanted to hear us do what we wanted.

Here Herbie recalled:

He said [hoarse, Miles-ish whisper]: “I don’t pay you to just play to get applause.” He told us he paid us to experiment on stage. He said: “I want you to try new things, brand new stuff.” And I told him, some of it’s maybe not going to work, so what about the audience then? He said: “Don’t worry about it. I got the audience.” He loved being challenged, being stimulated, being thrown a curveball. It’s like playing baseball: he was the homerun king, ready to strike any ball and send it over the stands.

If, despite the rhythm section’s attempt to “keep the groove happening”, it began to fall apart,

Miles with his playing would center it… tie it all together—as though he sensed what the link was—and get the thing to grooving so hard it was like being in the Garden of Eden. […]

What I was trying to do and what I feel they were trying to do was to combine—take these influences that were happening to all of us at the time and amalgamate them, personalise them in such a way that when people were hearing us, they were hearing the avant-garde on one hand and hearing the history of jazz that led up to it on the other hand—because Miles was that history. He was that link. We were sort of walking a tightrope with the kind of experimenting we were doing in music, not total experimentation, but we used to call it “controlled freedom”.

It reminds me that while our attention tends to be captured by the wind solos, the complex work of piano, bass, and drums is always a vital contributor to the effect. Do listen to their albums from this classic period in my post on Wayne Shorter, where I also cite passages from Miles: the autobiography. Here’s more from Miles:

Herbie was like a sponge. Anything you played was cool with him; he just soaked up everything. One time I told him that his chords were too thick, and he said, “Man, I don’t know what to play some of the time.”

“Then Herbie, don’t play nothing if you don’t know what to play. You know, just let it go; you don’t have to be playing all the time!” He was like someone who will drink and drink until the whole bottle is gone just because it’s there. Herbie was like that at first; he would just play and play and play because he could and because he never did run out of ideas and he loved to play. Man, that motherfucker used to be playing so much piano that I would walk by after I had played and fake like I was going to cut both of his hands off.

When he first came with us, I told Herbie, “You’re putting too many notes in the chord. The chord is already established and so is the sound. So you don’t have to play all the notes that are in the bottom. Ron’s got the bottom”. But that was the only thing I had to tell him, except to do it slow sometimes rather than so fast. And not to overplay; don’t play nothing sometimes, even if you sit up there all night. Don’t just play because you have eighty-eight keys to play.

I’m always in awe of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, with its masterly blend of social study and musical analysis (for the latter, see pp.633–6, 676–8, as well as here, with further links).

As drum and bass accompaniment within groups increased in complexity during the 50s and 60s, soloists like Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock sometimes favoured right hand improvisations and entirely eliminated the role of the left hand.

Here’s the quintet live in Sweden, 1967:

In 1965 Herbie led his own band (with Ron Carter and Tony Williams from Miles’s quintet, as well as George Coleman on sax and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet) for the album Maiden voyage (see here, and here):

* * *

Some jazzers remain quite happy to keep on mining the bebop seam, but though Herbie thrived in Miles’s band, he too kept moving on into the new sound-worlds of funk and hip-hop, relishing the potential of electronic keyboards. Indeed, he could just have stuck to Mozart—you’re used to me saying this, but much as I love Western Art Music, I can’t help feeling envious of all this musical creativity…

Herbie 2
The Head hunters. Source.

I featured Herbie’s Mwandishi period (including Ostinato, an earworm for me) in the Nardis post. Like Wayne Shorter, he has been a devotee of Nichiren Buddhism since the early 1970s. As he reflected,

When I first heard about Buddhism it sounded like what I always believed in. It was in harmony with how I looked at jazz. Buddhism says that everything that happens is important; every moment, good or bad, is to be accepted as a way to move your life forward. In that way, you turn poison into medicine.

Building on his Chicago roots, he devised Head hunters (1973; see here and here), including a reworking of Watermelon man:

Future shock (1983), including the award-winning Rockit:

While there’s a common nostalgia for the days of the 60s’ quintet, Herbie’s later path reaches out to younger audiences beyond hardcore bebop fans. And he’s still going strong—here he is reworking the classic Cantaloupe Island in 2018, with extended solos:

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