Herbie Hancock started performing feats of music magic soon after he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963. On parts of his conceptually ambitious but uneven new release, The Imagine Project, this genre-leaping keyboard icon and composer goes a step further by achieving a near disappearing act in the midst of his own album.
This partially demonstrates his desire to serve the songs at hand. But it also underscores the fact that 64 other musicians perform on this 10-song album, 15 of them on the opening selection alone (which was recorded in eight studios in three countries and required the services of 10 audio engineers). And given the boomer-friendly origins of many of these songs-think Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Sam Cooke-and the steady stream of pop-star cameos (which include Pink, John Legend and India.Arie), Hancock’s willingness to downplay his role may disappoint longtime fans.
This holds especially true if they expect, well, bona-fide jazz. “I’m not so interested in making a conventional, standard jazz album,” Hancock told me backstage at the 1999 Grammy Awards, where his all-star Gershwin’s World tribute project won double honors. “I like shooting for the fences.”
True to his word, his next two releases veered in different directions, albeit with mixed results. With 2001’s Future 2 Future, he struck a highly stylized balance between electronica, hip-hop and world music, with much sampling and sequencing but little spontaneity. Possibilities, released in 2005 and including songs by the likes of U2, Sting and Stevie Wonder, featured such singers as John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Joss Stone. Also present was longtime pal Carlos Santana, whose mega-successful 1999 album, Supernatural, boasted a bevy of young pop stars and provided an apparent template for Possibilities.
The game-changer for Hancock, if not his existing and potential audience, came with 2007’s River: The Joni Letters. A svelte, deeply felt tribute to Joni Mitchell, his close friend and collaborator, River showcased a smaller group of pop vocal stars and became the first recording by a jazz artist to win an Album of the Year Grammy since 1964. What, then, to do next?
As envisioned by Hancock and co-producer Larry Klein, The Imagine Project (which includes an upcoming DVD companion release) promotes world peace and global responsibility while embracing music from other cultures. Accordingly, the album includes Mali’s Tinariwen and Oumou Sangaré, Colombia’s Juanes, Ireland’s The Chieftains and East L.A.’s Los Lobos, among others. When everything clicks, it’s a heady mix, as evidenced by the album-closing “The Song Goes On,” which mixes the talents of the dazzling Anoushka Shankar on sitar, singers Chaka Khan and K.S. Chithra, Klein on bass and others into a soaring blend of East meets West that features Hancock’s most inspired piano playing on the album.
Some of the other selections work nearly as well. On the gospel-fueled “Space Captain,” a song popularized 40 years ago by Joe Cocker, Susan Tedeschi’s impassioned vocals give way to some splendid exchanges between Hancock on piano, Kofi Burbridge on Hammond B3 and young slide guitar master Derek Trucks. The gently propulsive Baden Powell/Vinicius de Moraes chestnut “Tempo de Amor,” which features a seductive vocal by Ceu, evokes Native Dancer, Wayne Shorter’s classic 1975 album with Hancock and Milton Nascimento.
But there is little room for melodic or harmonic reinvention in Hancock’s version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or on the pleasant but pointless remake of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” This hit-or-miss quality is present throughout the album, which-despite its diverse lineup and lofty ambitions-too often errs on the side of caution and politeness, when risk-taking and surprise would have made this a recording truly worthy of Hancock’s expansive skills and imagination.