It was a mixed bag of musicians that made up the “friends” list at the Herbie Hancock & Friends set at the Sonoma Jazz + festival last year. Joining keyboard legend Hancock were singer-songwriters Sonya Kitchell (17 at the time) and Keb’ Mo’, Latin percussionist Sheila E., New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and jazz guitarist Larry Carlton. As the musicians shuttled on and off the stage, the sound – anchored by Hancock’s steady jazz-oriented quartet – switched from bluesy songs to Caribbean-flavored jams to instrumental fusion.”It covered such a broad range,” said Hancock by phone. “Sheila E. got to play both timbales and a regular drum set. Keb’ Mo’ got to sing some songs from my ‘Possibilities’ record. The ball passed from one person to the next.”Such concerts come with the potential for fumbles. Pop vocal compositions don’t always segue well into instrumental jazz; a musician might just be getting up to speed when his turn onstage is cut short. But, with the exception of Sheila E. stumbling off her high heels for her entrance, Hancock says the musical gears that night in California shifted seamlessly. “This didn’t lose the flow,” he said.”Sometimes at jazz festivals, there’s an all-star jam that doesn’t jell,” said Jim Horowitz, the executive producer of Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and of Sonoma Jazz +, its 3-year-old sister festival. “This was the opposite. When it was over, the whole band said, we should do this again.”And so they will. At least, some of them. Because of scheduling conflicts, the guest list has had undergone some alterations. But Blanchard, Carlton and Keb’ Mo’ will join Hancock’s combo – drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Nathan East and guitarist Lionel Loueke – for the Herbie Hancock & Friends show that kicks off Jazz Aspen’s 18th annual June Festival on Thursday, June 21. The friends list also includes Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista and singer-guitarist Raul Midón.Regarding the success of last year’s concert, Hancock pointed to the lengthy rehearsal the day before, and the freshness that came from assembling players who had never worked together before. He also gave a nod to the high quality of musicianship each individual player brought to the congregation. Perhaps most critical to the venture, however, were the big ears and catholic tastes of the bandleader. Hancock, who played a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11, has never been one to put jazz in a box, sealed off from other styles. On the contrary, if there is a poster boy for stretching the boundaries of jazz, the 67-year-old Hancock may be it.
A Chicago native who studied composition and electrical engineering at Iowa’s Grinnell College, Hancock made his mark as a straight-ahead jazz player with his solo debut, 1962’s “Takin’ Off.” But the opening tune “Watermelon Man” revealed an unmistakable forward-thinking groove to it; the song would become a hit for Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría, and would also be recorded by the J.B.s (James Brown’s backing band) and rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Bill Haley & His Comets. Another Hancock recording, 1965’s “Maiden Voyage,” was a high-water mark for innovation and influence.As a member of Miles Davis’ so-called “second great quintet,” which spanned the mid-’60s, Hancock helped jazz turn the corner into the rock era. The pianist used uncommon chord structures and, aided by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, introduced a new rhythmic voice to jazz. In the quintet’s later albums, Davis encouraged Hancock to experiment on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Though he left the combo in 1968, Hancock made guest appearances on Davis’ groundbreaking recordings “In a Silent Way,” an early landmark in fusion, and the funky “On the Corner.”Intrigued by Davis’ open-minded example, Hancock dived into the realm of electronic instruments. His group Mwandishi – a Swahili word for “writer” – went to the outer limits of sonic exploration, incorporating both avant-garde classical techniques and free-jazz elements.Taking a cue from funk singer Sly Stone – and probably looking for a bigger audience than the Mwandishi music attracted – Hancock took a turn toward accessibility with 1973’s “Head Hunters.” The album, featuring a drastically reworked take on “Watermelon Man,” was thick with danceable grooves. The opening tune, “Chameleon,” with its fat, identifiable bass line, has been quoted numerous times in rock, funk, jazz and hip-hop circles.Hancock returned to straight-ahead jazz in his VSOP quintet, though he found plenty of opportunity to cross into disco and pop waters. In 1983, Hancock achieved a crossover high point with the song “Rockit,” from his “Future Shock” album. Among the first hit songs to use the scratching technique that became ubiquitous in hip-hop, “Rockit” also made for one of the most interesting, accomplished and popular music videos of the early MTV era.Hancock relates the smooth flow of his “And Friends” concerts to his own musical wanderings. “It’s just a broader palette. More colors to express,” he said of last year’s concert. “And it’s a pretty broad palette in my career. Maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable in that setting.”For Hancock, the element of comfort did not equate with playing predictable versions of the songs. Just the opposite. “One of the things that was particularly a pleasure for me, and everybody, I think, is it was an interweaving and cross-pollination of styles,” he said. “Sonya Kitchell – us doing her material, and she doing my material. It gave all of it a different perspective than what you hear on record. It’s the same songs, but a different viewpoint.”
Hancock may have hit certain limits in his adventurous tastes. He has never developed a love for hip-hop. “It’s more difficult for me to automatically get inside a lot of the newer music on the pop scene,” he said. “Even on the hip-hop scene – though ‘Future Shock’ and the song ‘Rockit’ kind of inspired that movement to the general public – I’m like a newbie. I don’t know the inside of it, where it is today. I don’t have the motivation and the connection to get inside of it.”Rather than dis wholesale the concept of sampling, scratching and thuggish lyrics, Hancock lays his failure to connect at his own fingertips. “When I was younger, all I did was listen to music,” he said. “Today, I spend a lot more time being a human than listening to music. I pay much more attention to politics, to social issues, to the issues humanity is facing. When I was younger, all my explorations were in music.”This worldly perspective may have broadened the music. Hancock says he is as likely these days to tune in to African, Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Indian music than American jazz or pop.
But there are more notable influences in Hancock’s current music. While he has continued to explore a variety of approaches, two pronounced threads have been an affection for pop songs, and a tendency to look to the past. His 1995 album “The New Standard” offered instrumental versions of the work of the Beatles, Prince, Nirvana and more; “Gershwin’s World,” from 1998, was an imaginative reworking of Gershwin standards, featuring vocalists Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Kathleen Battle. “Possibilities,” from 2005, centered even more on singers and songs, with vocal contributions from Sting, Trey Anastasio, Paul Simon, Joss Stone, Raul Midón, Angelique Kidjo and more. Hancock’s next album, tentatively due for an October release, focuses on the music of Joni Mitchell. The album will have singers including Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Ray, Leonard Cohen and Mitchell herself interpreting Mitchell’s songs. Hancock has also selected a pair of songs that influenced Mitchell: “In My Solitude,” written by Duke Ellington and popularized by Billie Holiday, and “Nefertiti,” written by saxophonist and frequent Hancock collaborator Wayne Shorter, and introduced on Miles Davis’ album of the same name.Delving into the past is not necessarily a retreat from keeping one’s ears open. As Hancock hinted, the songs may be familiar, but there is always a new angle, a new collaboration, another possibility just ahead.”I’m looking toward the future,” said Hancock. “People are getting closer and closer. New issues are being raised. These are completely different times than when I was young.”For a complete schedule of June Festival performances go to http://www.aspentimes.com/music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
A handful of Herbie Hancock’s many facets have been displayed on the Jazz Aspen Snowmass stages. Hancock, who was named the organization’s distinguished artist-in-residence in 1997, will make his fifth Jazz Aspen appearance this week – four at the June Festival, and one at the JAS Academy. Each concert has shown a different side of Hancock. Following is a personal look back at that history:• 1995: The acoustic Hancock. In his Jazz Aspen debut, in the organization’s fifth year, the pianist plays in a straight-ahead trio backed by bassist John Patitucci and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. A mesmerizing example of what the piano trio is capable of, this was the biggest reason I got hooked on jazz.• 1997: The intellectual Hancock. Following the release of the duo album “1 + 1” with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Hancock brought the show to the Silvertree Hotel’s Cabaret Room during the JAS Academy. Heady and ambitious, the music ultimately proved elusive.• 1998: The electric Hancock. Hancock reunited the funky Head Hunters for the first time in years. After a brief festival appearance, the band not only played its first full gig for Jazz Aspen fans, but also spent a day rehearsing in Snowmass Village. Waiting for an interview with the band, I got to watch the rehearsal. The public performance was solid, but just as the group was finding its groove, the set ended.• 2002: The incomparable Hancock. Honoring jazz titans Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Hancock, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and late saxophonist Michael Brecker put together the Directions in Music quintet to play the Davis and Coltrane repertoire. Keeping true to the spirit of the two innovators, the Snowmass concert fully reinvented the material, making it dazzling and fresh. Brecker’s solo take on Coltrane’s spiritual “Naima” was a virtuosic knockout, but Hancock’s uncanny phrasings were just as significant. One of the two greatest jazz shows I’ve seen.- Stewart Oksenhorn
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