Today is the UK release date of The Imagine Project. Herbie Hancock brings The Imagine Project to the London Jazz Festival on 13th and 14th November.
BY STEFAN HENTZ
At the age of 11 the child prodigy Herbie Hancock was playing Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At 23 he received the phone call that took him to the Mount Olympus of jazz, as piano player in The Miles Davis Quintet. Since then he has reinvented himself and his music time and again. He was one of the pioneers making jazz go electric in 1970. In 1983 “Rockit“, an instrumental that drew from jazz, funk and electronics, took him briefly into pop stardom.
In a hotel room overlooking Central Park, looking in fresh and trim for a man just turned 70, Hancock talked to me fervently about his mission to bring peoples together. The new album released to celebrate this milestone birthday – “Imagine Project.“ –has songs recorded with a cohort of pop stars, which transcend stylistic, geographical and generational borders. Chaka Khan and Seal, Anoushka Shankar and Pink, Jeff Beck, Los Lobos, The Chieftains, Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabaté, Konono No. 1 etc – it’s quite a list.
Stefan Hentz: I understand that Joni Mitchell once gave you a watch engraved with: “He Played Real Good For Free”.
Herbie Hancock: At the time, I wasn’t aware those were words for one of her songs. Somebody told me that later. I don’t know that much about songs, even if the lyrics are in English. It’s kind of difficult for jazz musicians to pay attention to the words… They’re not what immediately attracts my attention or what draws me into a song. It’s more the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythm that have a special function.
But Joni Mitchell’s right, isn’t she. You’re known for playing loads of charity concerts? So you do play “real good and for free”?
Hancock: Yes, that’s right: We played a lot of concerts for free, for different charities and different socially conscious groups, for women’s rights or Civil rights and so on.
Two years ago you were part of “Yes we can” Will.I.Ams treatment of a speech by Barack Obama.. Do you feel vindicated now? Are you happy about Obama’s first year as Presdent? Has there been change under President Obama?
Hancock: Absolutely. More than people realize. What he has accomplished is a whole lot of things that had never been done in any shape or form before, like health reform: it’s not the best, it’s not the most powerful, it has a lot of weaknesses in it, but at least he has taken the first step. It’s been turned into law. We tried for years, nobody was able to do it, but Obama has. There’s a lot of pessimism around now, people are really afraid and confused. Americans feel deeply insecure. And crazy. The first response the human being has to that is to try to point the finger. Try to find someone to blame. And whenever somebody who comes up with someone to blame they listen to him and believe him. But I think in most cases they’re pointing fingers in the wrong direction. My idea is not just to point fingers, my idea is to ask: what can we do as individuals to work towards the kind of change that we want. That’s what this record is about.
The Imagine Project is supposed to “show the power and beauty of global collaboration as a golden path to peace.“ Surely that is too much to ask of music?
Hancock: Music is very powerful. Certain songs conjure up certain experiences that you have had at a certain time in your life, sometimes really sad, sometimes really joyous. Music does affect people but in a very overt way. I remember this guy after a concert somewhere, he said: “thank you, because if that wasn’t for your song ‘Maiden Voyage’ I wouldn’t be born.” I never had a compliment like that. This is a funny example, but music has a powerful force like “We Shall Overcome” for the Civil Rights Movement, it was such a powerful, encouraging song. “We Are The World” – look how powerful that was, how much money it raised for aid.
The success of We Are The World was connected to a humanitarian disaster. The Imagine Project in contrast depends on the appeal of the musicians involved. Aren’t songs like Imagine, La Tierra, Don’t Give Up or The Times, They Are A—Changin’ with their messages of mutual respect and understanding of the people worldwide, too abstract and unspecific?
Hancock: Of course this record will not affect all the people, but the thing is I have to put it out that they can decide for themselves whether they like it or not or whether it affects their lives or not. It’ s my responsibility to do it. When I talk about the purpose, it’s about peace through global collaboration, that’s the message behind that.
With The Imagine Project you’re lowering your profile as a jazz musician. Couldn’t that alienate your jazz audience?
Hancock: I wasn’t thinking about jazz specifically. I’ve been playing jazz for so long I don’t have to even think about it. It’s much more of an issue of me growing beyond the traditional jazz area. It’s another way for me to exercise the extent to which jazz training gives you the capacity for exploring. It’s jazz that gives me the freedom to do this; it’s jazz that gives me the courage to approach a record of this nature; it allowed my own playing to not just take a traditional pop accompaniment direction. I was able to use my jazz training and my jazz sensibility to create an atmosphere from the piano.
I try to be a real collaborator. The result of the collaboration is more important than the individual collaborators. When all is said and done there’s this piece on the record. When you listen to it, you listen to the whole thing, not just the piano player. The most important thing about a record like this is, what the record is about, what it says, what it demonstrates. There’s a certain behaviour on the record and it’s a behaviour of sharing, that’s what is important.
When listening to your recent recordings it seems to me you have been moving away from what improvising jazz musicians normally do. It seems less and less about showing off skill or about depth of personal expression.
Hancock: Exactly. I don’t look at music anymore from the viewpoint of a musician. I look at it from the viewpoint of being a human being. That’s a much bigger viewpoint. When you look at it from the viewpoint of being a musician you actually put walls between yourself and people who aren’t musicians. But if you look at music and look at yourself from the standpoint of being a human being the walls are removed. That means, that we’re all together as one family. That’s what we are anyway and people need to hear that. We are one family, we are one people and we need to star acting like that. We got a big fight ahead of us with the environment. The planet is not going to be screwed up. It will just wipe us out. We’re screwing up our future. At some point that’s a natural process, at some point there will be an ice-age or something, like it was before. The planet’s alive. The universe is alive and so it has its life and its fall. Just like we do. You’re born and you die. This is a natural process that happens like waves. But because of our greed and our self-centredness we have sped up the process. So in order for us to be able to solve or slow down the process of climate change. We have to change our habits. We’re gonna have to make tremendous sacrifices and the motivation to make these sacrifices is taking a kind of collective consciousness that is aware of our common obstacles that challenges the survival of the human species. That’s kind of the hidden message in this record.
In nearly half a century as a professional musician you have played in a lot of different settings. You played Hardbop and Funk an instrumental Pop. Recently you toured with pianoplayer Lang Lang and played classical compositions…..
Hancock: I hope that I can make good music out of whatever genre I go into. Just to prove myself, that I can do. When I can do it everybody can do it. I’m not special, no more special than anybody else. I want to keep all the doors open. For me it’s exciting to have all these challenges and work in different directions. It helps me to fine-tune my own possibilities.
Is that related to the fact that jazz isn’t as vital today as it was in its heyday between 1945 and 1970?
Hancock: People always rave about the old days. About smoky clubs, sessions until dawn, and all that great music. It all looks very romantic, but it’ not real. It’ not the reality. The reality that’s tough. When I first started off, the trumpet player and the saxophone player, they had one mike. The piano had one mike that they stuck somewhere. No monitors. Most of the time you could barely hear the bass-player, drummer? No problem. The piano-player you could barely hear them too, or the drummer had to play really soft. And actually very often that was good, because the pianos were in a miserable condition.
One thing I liked about the Fender Rhodes electric piano: the drummer didn’t have to play soft for me, he could play it loud and I could turn the volume up. I wanted that. I see this evolution as a good thing. Back in the sixties we were playing in clubs. But there was a camaraderie with the musicians, we went to hear each other when ever we could. There were a lot of jam sessions, I don’t know how it is as I’m not on a scene as such like I used to be, but the last thing I heard there are not so many jam sessions like at peoples houses it’s not like it used to be.
Has jazz outlived itself?
Hancock: I’m seeing a lot of new, young jazz players emerging from high schools, way more than I expected. They’re talented, they’re good and they want to play the music. So to me that says, that jazz is very much alive and well for the future. One thing I’d like to do: at my age I’m very much into doing what was done for me. There were a lot of my elders that shared their experiences with me, that encouraged me and helped me to be what I am today. And I’m at the point where I want to do the same thing for young people, share my experiences, encourage them, help them to find their way, not my way, their way.
I fortunately had this great teacher Miles Davis that helped me to find my way. He never told us what to play, never. Five and a half years he’s never said: don’t play this. And if he said “play something”, it would always be wrong. Always. I remember Miles seeing this depressed look in my face, nothing was coming out, I was sort of constipated, he said “put a B flat in the bass”. I put a B flat in the bass and it was definitely wrong, but then I found something and that worked and I was delighted, and when I looked up he said: “you see?” I took me years to figure out: he deserves the credit, because he made me search for my own answer and it got me out of the depression. If I wanted to follow him, I had to follow myself and bring the answer from myself. That’s what a master teacher does.
Miles was non-judgemental. He never told us he didn’t like what we played and told us, don’t do this, don’t do that. I remember I played a real wrong chord at the peak of a great evening when Miles was soloing. He played some notes that made my chord right. It blew my mind. He didn’t hear it as a wrong chord, he just heard it as something that happened and he took the responsibility of making something out of it. And I try to do the same thing myself rather than judging. Take whatever happens and try to make it work. This is the essence of my experience with Miles and it’s always present.
I don’t feel that I’m missing Miles because I don’t feel that he’s gone. And I think it’s like that for a lot of the people that have played with Miles, and some of them that I have talked to say they were deeply touched by the experience of playing with him in a way that’s almost mystical and indescribable.
Now I try to live up to this experience and turn anything that happens into something of value for my life It’s part of life to have obstacles. It’s winning over obstacles that’s the key to happiness. Daisaku Ikeda, who is my mentor for life, taught me to understand how to see many of the lessons I learned from music and from Miles learned that they are also applicable to life. Turn something that is an obstacle into something of value for your life. Because hidden underneath an obstacle is that and it’s your responsibility to find out what that is. Then you’re free. When you’re not afraid of any obstacles because you that important key of knowing that there is some way to look at it that can move your life forward. I don’t know of any other freedom that goes beyond that.
Thanks for the interview
Hancock: It’s been a pleasure.