Herbie Hancock: Ancient to the Future

Directions in Music (L to R): Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock

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Herbie Hancock, one of the greatest pianists and most forward-looking musicians in the history of jazz, is eating lunch in my ear. His chewing is measured, not rushed, and its sound precedes most of his answers to my questions during the first 45 minutes of our interview. Handsome and fit at 62, Hancock sounds relaxed, if bored; the food sounds tasty.

But a relaxed artist doesn’t necessarily make for good conversation. Apparently, neither does the keyboardist’s fantastic new album, Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (Verve), a collaborative CD and band by the same name led by Hancock, saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

JazzTimes wanted to get Directions in Music’s three principals together to talk Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the two artists whose legacies the band honors. But gathering all three guys for a joint chat was impossible: too many managers, too many schedules, not enough time. In fact, originally, Hancock wasn’t going to do any press for the CD. Perhaps he knew what all the questions would be and wasn’t interested in playing the publicity game: Is Directions in Music a tribute band? Why are you reverting to music you played 30 and 40 years ago? Is the homage a marketing ploy first, an artistic statement second?

At the last minute, Hancock said he would talk to reporters on the phone over the course of one day. Hancock’s home and studio are in the Los Angeles area, and my interview was his last of the day. While our chat wasn’t an uncomfortable one, it was quietly difficult at first. Until, that is, we touched on his recent jazztronica CD, Future 2 Future, and his undeniable influence on modern electronic music; then our conversation flowed as freely as Hancock’s early-’70s music.

The distinction between Hancock’s jazz guise and pop persona is something that has been carefully managed by his business associates since the keyboardist crossed over with “Chameleon” in 1973. But music, of whatever direction, is something that Hancock himself doesn’t spend much time drawing divisions between. It’s part of his Buddhist nature. Music, like life, exists on a continuum, not as a divided series of events. The ancient portends the future; the future reflects the ancient.

Ancient to the Future

Spending the day explaining that Directions in Music is not a tribute album, and that he wasn’t going back to the music he was playing 30 to 40 years ago seems to have worn Hancock out.

Hancock gamely admits that his agent#, Scott Southard, who also works with Brecker, prompted Directions in Music. “He put the group together for a tour of four weeks through the U.S. and Canada,” Hancock says distractedly, in celebration of Davis and Coltrane’s 75th birthdays-one of many tributes, large and small, jumping on the bandwagon to honor those greats.

“Our definition of tribute was not to re-create what they had already done. We figured that if we did that, we would not really be paying tribute to them,” Hancock says with a polish that indicates he’s been saying the same thing all day. “We’re not paying tribute to the tunes; we’re paying tribute to the ideas they introduced to the world, in the ways they created new pathways. In order to honor them, we had to figure out ways to create new pathways ourselves.”

Hancock has honored his former boss in concert and on albums with his celebrated V.S.O.P. group with Davis bandmates Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. His 1981 record Quartet, which features a young Wynton Marsalis taking over the trumpet chair, also fetes Davis, as does 1992’s A Tribute to Miles, with Wallace Roney manning the horn. Despite evidence to the contrary, Hancock doesn’t see Directions in Music as an extension of his other tribute projects. “Not at all. First, [Directions in Music] is not my band. V.S.O.P. was a collaborative band, but I was the leader. This one, we’re all the leaders.”

While that may seem like splitting hairs, Directions in Music does share with V.S.O.P. an unplanned continued existence, in concert and on record. The earlier Davis tribute was supposed to be a singular reunion in 1976-V.S.O.P. is short for Very Special One-Time Performance-but the concert was so successful that by 1977 the band was touring and, in the process, cut its first album, V.S.O.P.: The Quintet. Directions in Music was originally supposed to play its tribute concerts last fall then fade into memory as one of many supergroups that have convened and departed once their contractual obligations were fulfilled.

Directions in Music had no intention of doing a record at the time the band was first proposed, Hancock says, but after they played a few gigs “we were so excited about the way things were going, the way the music was shaping up at the concerts, I thought, if I could get permission from everybody, I could record this and use it as a record to satisfy my contractual arrangements with Verve. It ended up as the next record for all three of us.”

The band brought out a 24-track recorder and taped a few gigs, but the one that actually became Directions in Music-the October 25, 2001, Massey Hall concert in Toronto-wasn’t recorded with a CD in mind but rather for a radio broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The CBC was one of the sponsors for that concert-part of their agreement was that they would record it and play it back once or twice during the year,” Hancock says. “So they were recording away.”

What the CBC captured is 77 minutes of elastic acoustic jazz, played by some of the best contemporary players, including the rhythm section of bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. The track list mixes Davis and Coltrane-associated tunes-a drifty take on Hancock’s “The Sorcerer”; Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s “My Ship”; Trane’s “Naima” (played solo by Brecker in a remarkable state-of-the-tenor address) and “Transition”; the medley “So What/Impressions”-and originals like Hargrove’s “The Poet,” Brecker’s “D Trane” and the band’s collaborative reworking of “Stella by Starlight” as “Misstery.”

What you get from the CD is a great set of jazz based on forms that were explored by Davis and Coltrane throughout the 1960s. What you don’t get is something epochal. It’s a wholly unfair expectation, to be sure, but because Directions in Music honors players who were known for their great leaps forward it’s an expectation that many people will place upon the album.

I asked Hancock what it was like to go back and play music from when he was in his 20s and 30s, since he is someone who has willfully stayed in front on the contemporary curve. “Don’t let the word contemporary confuse you,” Hancock corrects. “The real definition of contemporary has to do with being modern. Rock ‘n’ roll is definitely not modern; jazz has always been more modern than rock ‘n’ roll. More complex, more involved. But rock ‘n’ roll has never professed to have that kind of”-Hancock pauses for an eternity, chews his food, gathers his thoughts and says, “sense.”

But, I continue asking, since you’re someone who has always looked for new sounds, new ideas-“Well, we did that on Directions in Music,” Hancock interrupts. “That is new. You notice, the solos are not just bebop solos. This is a new approach to playing jazz.”

Future to the Ancient

Forty-five minutes into our conversation Hancock’s eating has abated; so has the conversation about Directions in Music, about which Hancock seems to want to say, “It speaks for itself.”

When the conversation drifts to Future 2 Future, Hancock’s late 2001 CD of jazztronica and his recent spring tour in support of the album, the keyboardist’s metabolism kicks in. His answers break out of the musician’s equivalent of athlete-speak, and for the first time he’s genuinely engaged in the conversation rather than his lunch.

The Bill Laswell co-produced Future 2 Future came out on Hancock’s own label, Transparent Music, rather than Verve. “I do different kinds of special projects from time to time that don’t really fit into the kind of promotion engine that Verve has; it creates a problem for them. They have to kind of tool up for these special projects,” Hancock says. Once again the business end of the keyboardist’s career is forcing his music into tidy slots.

“What we worked out is special projects would be handled by Transparent Music, and the things that are primarily the more straightahead kind of things would be on Verve,” Hancock says. “That’s why Directions in Music is on Verve; it’s easier for them. Transparent is designed to handle special projects; we’re not particularly tooled up for any particular genre. As a matter of fact, we’re genreless”-much like the label boss himself.

From the soul-jazz quartet on 1962’s “Watermelon Man” (from Takin’ Off, his debut as a leader) to his electric avant-garde band heard on 1970’s Mwandishi, 1971’s Crossing and 1972’s Sextant to his fusion-funk megahit “Chameleon” (from 1973’s Headhunters) to 1983’s electro-pop MTV smash “Rockit” (from Future Shock, his first collaboration with Bill Laswell), Hancock has led trends or at the very least changed with the times. That willful genre-jumping has led to enduring experiments (like the trio of Mwandishi-band records and Future Shock, whose reach and influence have developed over decades) and of-their-time commercial stabs (like the disco-schlock duo of 1979’s Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now and 1980’s Monster).

That Hancock isn’t afraid to swing for the fences-sometimes hitting a rama-lama-ding-dong like Barry Bonds, other times whiffing like a utility infielder-makes his career all the more compelling. His willingness to try anything, despite possibly failing spectacularly, has benefited music as a whole; it’s a shame more musicians aren’t that brave.

Future 2 Future isn’t quite a homerun, but it is a solid double. There are divine moments of inspiration on the CD, such as the percussion-heavy “Kebero,” which features Detroit-techno pioneer Carl Craig and Ethiopian vocalist GiGi; “Ionosphere,” which features the pounding of Karsh Kale, a pioneer of real-time drum ‘n’ bass-style percussion; and the free-flowing “Alphabeta” and “Virtual Hornets,” which dance to the movements of drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Charnett Moffett.

But unlike Hancock’s best forays into popular music in the ’70s and ’80s, where the keyboardist used his light-years-beyond-pop skills to elevate the forms he was investigating, Future 2 Future sounds like someone reacting to trends in drum ‘n’ bass five years after they’ve come and gone.

“I’m not trying to follow any trends,” Hancock counters politely. “I’m interested in electronica because I happen to be interested in it. I like the freedom that’s in it, the openness. It’s almost impossible to keep up with it because it’s so broad.

“I’ve listened to some other electronic stuff, but I haven’t heard anything-Future 2 Future doesn’t sound like any record I’ve ever heard in my life. It sounds totally different-to me. Now maybe you’ve heard some things that sound like that.” Hancock doesn’t sound defensive; just confident.

“There’s one other element, and I think it’s a key element with Future 2 Future: the other personnel that we have-Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Chaka Khan, Charnett Moffett-particularly the first people I named, are cornerstones and seasoned jazz musicians. Their seasoning, and I dare say my own, because I’ve been around a while, puts an element on Future 2 Future that I don’t hear on the other records because they’re not seasoned musicians. And I think that’s a clear distinction.”

Hancock admits he didn’t know much about the new electronic music scene when he and Laswell first talked about collaborating again.

“Bill asked me if I realized that in this new, cutting-edge music called electronica, if I knew that stuff I had done in my kind of avant-garde period, with Sextant and Mwandishi and [the Japanese-only release] Dedication, if I knew that those records were big influences on a lot of people who are carving out electronica. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ First of all, I didn’t know that much about electronica, and I still don’t. I didn’t believe him.”

Laswell likes to work with prerecorded sounds and/or rhythms, then bring his work to Hancock, who adds to or subtracts from it. But as Hancock explains, this was no Future Shock part two, or even their second collaboration together, 1988’s Perfect Machine; the methodologies had changed. “Instead of me listening to what he put on tape and then figuring out the next move and then going in and recording that, and putting it on in different layers, this time he played the stuff for me, but I was at the keyboard with the record light on, so he got my immediate response to whatever he played for me. Me not knowing what key it was going to be in, what the tempo is, what it sounds like-nothing. And I just respond to it, using my right brain.”

On much of the CD, Hancock sounds tentative-when you can tell it’s his playing, that is, as he’s often willfully reduced to ambient whoosh or a supporting role. Though he disagrees with the “tentative” assessment, Hancock does admit he was unsure of Laswell’s process at first. “I remember the first thing that I [recorded for the CD], and I said, ‘Well, I guess we better do this again.’ And [Bill] said, ‘No, we can use most of that.’ And I said, ‘What?'” he chuckles. “I really didn’t know what we were doing. I was overdubbing things, responding to stuff, making some decisions, but it really hadn’t taken a shape in the beginning.”

If Hancock was confused initially by the music Laswell had put together for him to play over on Future 2 Future, one of the keyboardist’s buddies wasn’t. “I had someone listen to what I had done-a young friend of mine who has listened to other electronica stuff, and he brought me some records the next day. He played some things for me that other people had done, and then I understood the relationship of what I did with Sextant and those records and what people are doing with electronica, and I said, ‘Oh, I see.’ Then it became much clearer to me that the direction we were moving in was not so shapeless and formless. I could envision an end; I knew what we were going for. I needed to know that; I didn’t know we were going to be that far out,” he laughs.

Hancock says that Future 2 Future is “really the first [album] where the improvisation I put on is not designed to be a strong focus. I was more interested in just creating the sound and direction of the record. That’s what Future 2 Future is about; it’s about the direction.”

But that direction took on a few shapely and sharp curves when Hancock toured the Future 2 Future group last spring. As he became more comfortable with the tones, textures and rhythms of electronica, Hancock was able to push his improvisations and the group’s live interaction to the fore at the concerts. The shows were a tantalizing teaser for what could result were Hancock to pursue this less-studio-reliant, more band-oriented direction on subsequent jazztronica CDs.

A DVD of one of the Future 2 Future band concerts, which were presented live in surround sound, will hit the streets this fall. It shows that Hancock is definitely onto something greater than what the Future 2 Future CD ultimately turned out to be. “It’s much more energetic; it’s not as laid back,” Hancock says of the live band. “It’s much more fiery and dynamic than the record. Frankly, with touring and playing that music, everything really began to stretch out and it sounded more like the Mwandishi band live than it does on the record.”

It’s not surprising that the Future 2 Future band ended up sounding like the Mwandishi group. The Future 2 Future ensemble is just part of Hancock’s creative continuum as a practicing Buddhist, one that, while standing on its own, is inexorably circle-linked to everything else he has ever done. Future 2 Future relates to Mwandishi which relates to Future Shock which relates to Directions in Music with relates to Head Hunters which relates to Empyrean Isles and so on.

That ancient-to-the-future/future-to-the-ancient loop is one of the things that resonates with the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink postmodern electronica artists who have rediscovered Hancock’s avant-groove music.

Hancock’s Afro-futuristic early-1970s combination of earthy funk, cosmic groove and the omniversal vibe is reflected in the LP cover art as well as the music. He says that “history is involved in the past and the future” and the music and art from that period was his search for “the humanism of the past and the earthiness of Africa and primary elements and the planets. People are the caretakers of the environment, who are usually the indigenous peoples of different lands. That combined with my interests in science and technology and futurism is where I’m coming from.”

Cover artist Robert Springett painted Hancock’s first Afro-futurist album cover with 1971’s Crossings. “There are Africans that are pulling a boat up on a beach-that kind of primitive element, although the music itself is very modern and avant-garde. There’s a rawness, too, that is kind of a tie-in with the primitive and the kind of exploratory nature of stepping into areas of the unknown. The [cover and music] relate to each other in that sense.”

Springett’s take on Hancock’s black-to-the-futurism is spelled out more explicitly on the cover to the following year’s Sextant, with an African boy and girl dancing under a giant moon on the front cover, which is dotted with a broken chain of metallic beads floating in the sky over an Egyptian pyramid. On the back cover is an Afro-alien who points toward the metallic chain as a Buddha head drifts past the burning sun and billowing clouds.

On 1974’s Thrust Hancock makes his first of two appearances as an Afronaut. Springett paints an Afroed Hancock as the pilot of a bubble spaceship approaching the formerly lost Incan city Machu Picchu in Peru’s Andes mountains. Spaceman Herbie appears again on the cover of 1975’s Japanese-only release Flood, this time sans ship and with a space helmet covering his hair, perhaps indicating that he’s touched down on the planet; dancing Africans from deep within a volcano appear to be pushing up lava as a giant fish swims toward a vortex of water that has risen out of the ocean.

Dario Campanile takes a similar approach to Springett’s on 1976’s Man-Child cover painting, with a giant mask facing the shoreline that surrealistically morphs into a combination of mountains and outer space. From this point on, Hancock’s covers alternate from disco-ready headshots and classy paintings to the sci-fi-influenced designs that decorate Future Shock, Perfect Machine and 1993’s Dis Is da Drum.

Future 2 Future’s cover, which shows a chest-on-up photo of the keyboardist, doesn’t have overt Afro-futurist elements, as Hancock explains, but they’re there. “[I’m wearing] a type of raincoat, but because it’s plastic and transparent, a little bit, it gives an illusion that there’s something futuristic about it, like a space suit.”

Song titles such as “Black Gravity,” “Ionosphere,” “Alphabeta” and “Virtual Hornets” help nudge the vibe toward black sci-fi, and the techno-spiritual theme is spelled out on the 33-second voiceover cut “Wisdom,” as Hancock says: “It states, ‘Knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.’ I don’t want to be a slave to the technology. I don’t think any of us want to be a slave to the technology.

“Technology, if it doesn’t serve humanity, has no real value. And [humanity] is the real focus. It’s not on the knowledge or the technology-those are tools. If you don’t have wisdom to guide them, then you’re in deep trouble-and so is the rest of humanity. As long as we keep the focus on the human being, to inspire people, to encourage people to creativity, then we’re moving in the right direction.”

Hancock on Miles:

Why did Miles Davis hate the idea of revisiting his acoustic music?

A lot of what Miles said to interviewers was just what he said at the time; it didn’t really describe, I don’t think, how Miles really felt in a broader sense. I don’t think Miles hated the idea of doing acoustic jazz, but he would have hated to play like what he did before; he always wanted to play something that he hadn’t played.

“So What” and “Sorcerer” are taken apart and made new on your Directions in Music CD. Eventually, Davis wouldn’t even allow himself to attempt to take apart something like “So What.” Perhaps he felt that even if he did take it apart it still could never be far enough removed from the original for a futurist like himself.

He wasn’t working with Tony Williams and Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, for one thing-

Or Herbie Hancock.

Or me.

The bands weren’t good, then?

They were different. In order for him to do what you are suggesting, [Miles] would have needed us to help him with that, or musicians of our caliber. And those bands were not of that caliber. There were some musicians who were, yes. John Scofield on guitar certainly was. Bob Berg, saxophone player. But the keyboard players were marginal. In the beginning he had Chick Corea; Keith Jarrett did a few things. Those are major guys, but he didn’t have people like that after them. They weren’t great soloists, and they weren’t incredible conceptualists. That was mostly Miles’ stuff.

Why did he choose those musicians?

I think what he wanted was to create an environment that was closer to a new kind of rock thing than an environment that was an extension of the acoustic jazz that he had before. So he needed musicians that were more into that, to create that kind of environment; musicians that think that way. Miles’ playing was still Miles. If you actually listen to what he played, you could take what he played and stick it in with the groups he had with me and Ron and it would be very appropriate. If you listen to the notes that he played-what he added was a wah-wah pedal, in certain cases. But the environment was different so it gave [his playing] a different kind of tone. It was inspirational to him because it meant he could think a different way compositionally.

Do you foresee people doing a V.S.O.P. or Directions in Music dedicated to his ’80s stuff?


Now that ’70s-era electric Miles is revered, especially by electronica artists, do you think the same revival will happen to his ’80s music?

I would be surprised if it didn’t. Miles’ output was always genius stuff. Believe me, Michael Brecker and Roy and I, we thought, when we were putting the tour together, “Should we attempt at all to address the electric stuff that Miles did?” We decided not to, that maybe that should take place at another time to celebrate Miles. But first, let’s do this one.