Monday, 6 April 2009
BY BENSON IDONIJE
THE fact that planist Herbie Hancock won the ‘grammy’ for best album of the year, 2008 is a good testimony to his consistent and elastic musical prowess, despite his seemingly unwholesome marriage since 1973 with fusion.
In recognition of this great feat, Herbie Hancock was hosted on the first ever Playboy Jazz Cruise as special guest recently from January 25 – February 1, 2009. Other musicians on board included Dianne Reeves, Keb Mo’, Poncho Sanchez, James Moody, Roy Hargrove, James Carter, Elder, Roberta Gambarini, New Birth Brass Band plus other great musicians.
Hosted by Marcus Miller of Playboy Jazz Cruize, ports of call were San Juan, Nevis, St. Barths, Half Moon Cay. Like the one before it, the cruise was a sell-out. Hancock truly deserves this honour for his longevity and relevance. The last time I saw him, he was playing keyboards at the Obama Presidential victory rally, among other notable musicians.
Hancock made his name playing piano with the Miles Davis sextet even though he had previously recorded with different groups and written some of the finest compositions in jazz today. But he departed from the conventional, straight-ahead jazz and began to dabble in fusions, like his mentor did in 1968. In Hancock’s case, he established the grounding for computerised music, feeding all kinds of moogs and synthesizers into the system. The result was Head Hunters which became a big hit for him in 1973.
The commercial success of this album encouraged him to pursue the path of fusion characterised by ‘funk’ and ‘soul rock’. He has since made it big, reaching out to a wider audience, including those who would never have been introduced to jazz. However, like Miles Davis who started to introduce elements of popular music into jazz from 1968, Hancock did not compromise his artistry. The entire texture of the music might have been watered down to a point where it appealed to non-jazz audiences, but he played his own instrument with the same creative ability that characterised his early jazz performances with Miles Davis and the many sides he recorded for Blue Note records.
As a matter of fact, if not for the amazing reign of Miles Davis, pianist Herbie Hancock might qualify as jazz’s most well known, popular performer since the ‘60s. Hancock had 11 albums in the charts during the 70s and 17 between 1973 and 1984 including three in 1974, figures that put him well ahead of any other jazz musician in the 70s and beyond.
Hancock who is a living legend, is also among jazz’s finest electics, having played everything from bebop to free, jazz rock, fusion, funk, instrumental pop, dance, hip hop and world fusion. Hancock’s style, greatly influenced by Gil Evans who also affected Miles Davis in some way, mixes introspective and energetic elements, and fuses blues and gospel influences with bebop and classical elements. He’s both a great accompanist and excellent soloist, whose voicing, phrasing, melodic and interpretative skills and harmonic facility were impressive early in his career, and remain sharp no matter what style or idiom he’s working. It all began from the ‘60’s.
In 1963, trumpeter Donald Byrd who had a lot in common with Hancock talked Blue Note into sponsoring Hancock’s first album as a leader and Takin’ Off resulted. Take off it did, propelled by Hancock’s Watermelon man.
The mid-70s found Bryd and Hancock the best selling jazz instrumentalists of all time, though their genre-hopping innovations had robbed that four-letter word of much of its meaning. They did improvise as jazz men are wont to do, and certainly their careers reflected a thorough grounding in the mainstream jazz idiom of the 1950s and early ’60s with forays into the avantgarde. But they also used electronic instrumentation and played over pop rhythms of the kind pioneered by James Brown and Sly Stone. Writers argued the merits of their new music – “Sell out” versus “new wave” – while the public bought their records in unprecendent numbers.
Memories are short. Even a casual perusal of the intertwined histories of Byrd and Hancock leads to the inescapable conclusion that the substantial reputations of both men have long been based on their ability to communicate with masses of listeners while satisfying the most demanding critics of all, their fellow musicians.
Hancock scored audience identification right away with Watermelon man which was later popularised in Europe, across Latin America and beyond by Mungo Santamaria, and went on to capture the attention of jazz players everywhere with his Maiden voyage, after watermelon man, one of the most influential and most widely played and recorded jazz compositions of the 60s. up till the ‘70s through to the ‘80s. Maiden voyage, Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, and a few other compositions from the same period, the mid-sixties, were tests by which the abilities of countless young unprovisers were judged. In a very real sense, they were the Lady be good, I got rhythm of the 70s. And up till the ‘80s discotheque bands around the world reproduced, as best as they could, the funk cross rhythms and electronic keyboards effects of Hancock’s Chamelion.
This might surprise some student musicians, especially those who are eager to jump into contemporary sounds without absorbing classical basics, but Herbert Jeffery Hancock, who took up the piano at age 17, never thought about contemporary music until his sophomore year in high school. For the record, he was born April 20, 1940, and grew up on the South side of the Windy City. At age 11, he performed Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. He first became aware of the possibilities of jazz at a high school talent show when he heard a fellow student improvising. “I didn’t know what he was playing,” Hancock later recalled, “So I had to really find out what it was for myself.” He then proceeded to shut himself up in his room with his record player, some staff paper, and jazz piano recordings by Oscar Peterson and George shearing, and transcribe the improvisations he heard, note for note. Only in this way could he play them.
“The first one I tried,” he remembers, “took me weeks. Then I got it down to days, then hours – and finally I found that I could recognise and write whole passages quickly, and away from the piano.” In this time-consuming, arduous manner, Hancock developed the improvisational skills, the harmonic sophistication, and the other attributes which have helped him forge ahead to his present position of eminence.
The rise to the top however started in Chicago, where he worked with, among others, the inventor of jazz saxophone, Coleman Hawkins. Then in quick succession came Donald Byrd, the move to New York, a few months in Bryds combo, Takin off, and in 1963, the piano chair in the most influential small band of the time, the Miles Davis Quintet.
He stayed in the band until 1968 and participated (as composer and pianist) in such ground-breaking albums as ESP, Nefertiti, Miles in the sky, Files de kilimanjaro, all of which served in one way or another as prototypes for the new electric sound which was to be Davis principal contribution to the music of the 70s.
In 1973, Hancock told Dowbeat interviewer, Ray Townley that Davis’ music of that period moved “through a lot of chord changes, a lot of different moods, a lot of tempo changes. But it would be misleading to say it was Miles Davis’ music. The music was not just a reflection of Miles, it was a reflection of all the guys in the band. He doesn’t ever tell you what to play, you know. If what you play works, that’s cool. Now if it doesn’t work, he’ll try to do something to make it work.
“I remember one time we were playing a concert in Germany, I think, and we were playing this one song and we got to one chord and I played the chord too soon, way too soon, it clashed with everything that was going on. Miles played - it was during his solo-he played something on top of my chord to make it sound right. He made it fit and it blew my mind.
“I’m sure he didn’t even think about it because it wasn’t anything he could think about. He didn’t hear it as a clash, he heard it as ‘this is what’s happening right now so I’ll make the most of it,’ and he did.”
Such was the tutelage that Herbie Hancock underwent with perhaps the most influential musician in jazz history.