Taking Liberties

Even jazz has taboos — and Hancock has broken most of them

Rare are musicians who get to freely follow their artistic whims. Herbie Hancock is among the blessed few. Since the early 1970s, he's blithely moved between the worlds of acoustic jazz, fusion, R&B, rock and pop, hopscotching to different projects with impunity. The legendary keyboardist, 63, has made commercial music, some of which has been pretty bad, but not out of economic necessity. More often, he's made very good music, much of it ahead of its time, much of it both commercially and artistically successful.

This is no easy feat, folks. For all its intrinsic freedom, jazz, the music that launched Hancock's career, can be a restrictive endeavor. A player can quickly become ghettoized into a subgenre. Not Herbie. He must've had the mutant gene that kept him out of pigeonholes. That, and he had Miles Davis. "He was very flexible and open," Hancock says, still openly reverent toward the man in whose band he played from 1963 to 1968. "He encouraged that in the musicians that worked with him. I've really tried to keep that spirit in me. It's a very important and fundamental kind of decision to make about how you want to approach your music and your life."

Hancock's funk-based 1973 album, Headhunters, is widely regarded as the first jazz album to go platinum. A decade later, he scored with Future Shock, a collaboration with producer Bill Laswell that spawned the smash "Rockit" and other nuggets of hard, electronic funk.

Yet Hancock did not cross over and stay there. He has always maintained a foothold in the acoustic jazz world. Several of his '60s solo albums on Blue Note, recorded while he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, are considered classics. His post-Miles jazz work has included myriad projects involving luminaries such as Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Ron Carter (all Davis alums) and others. In the early '80s, he unveiled a young Wynton Marsalis, producing the trumpeter's debut solo album.

Among the mainstays of Hancock's touring calendar is the acoustic piano trio. This is the format he'll use for his Clearwater Jazz Holiday appearance. The pianist's current bandmates are drummer Terri Lynne Carrington and bassist Scott Colley.

"The approach that we use in constructing arrangements and performing is primarily pointed toward intuition," he says. "Everybody is constantly listening intensely, focusing on the output of the group. At any moment any of the musicians can inspire the next direction, the next moment or few moments, with an idea. We're constantly listening to each other — without being judgmental."

Herbert Jeffrey Hancock grew up in Chicago, a gifted musician from the outset. At age 11, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was drawn to jazz in high school but also became passionate about electronic science — so much so that he took a double major in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College. It came as no surprise, then, that Hancock was drawn early on to synthesizers, and that he organically incorporated them into his music rather than twiddling knobs as part of some misguided crossover dream.

After a three-year stint as part of trumpeter Donald Byrd's band, and some regular session work for Blue Note, Hancock got the fateful call from Miles. Much has been made of the trumpeter's curmudgeonly ways, but it's a side of Miles that Hancock rarely saw. "He'd have his good days and bad days, but I didn't get too much of his ire," Herbie says with a chuckle. "Miles loved to talk. He was so smart, so funny, so sarcastic. We had the highest regard for each other."

Hancock's career has been on fast-forward ever since. His music has been rife with discovery, as has his life. "It absolutely still burns for me," he says. "I've been practicing Buddhism for 30 years, and that's helped keep the fire burning, keep the mystery happening. One of my more recent [discoveries] is that people have a tendency to look at things one way, when there's actually an infinite number of ways to look at them. I also came to another realization — this happened only within the last five years — that I'm not a musician. I'm a human being. Being a musician is what I do. I'm also a father, a son, a husband, a neighbor, all sorts of stuff. That kind of realization is liberating. It helps me further think outside the box."

Senior Writer Eric Snider can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 114.