For four decades, Herbie Hancock has upheld jazz traditions while simultaneously decimating its pieties and conventions. It's hard to think of a jazz artist whose career has been more fertile, eclectic and ultimately controversial. And at age 61, the keyboardist, composer and producer remains an anarchistic free thinker.
Part of Hancock's method is strictly musical. But there's another part of him that's bent on defying anyone who tries to tell him what he can and cannot accomplish with his art.
"The way to get me to do something is to tell me it can't be done," says Hancock, who plays the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Monday. "That's like pushing a button on me. Now I have to do it."
One of Hancock's earliest hits, "Watermelon Man," has become a jazz standard since its release in the early 1960s. Yet this song gave fair notice that Hancock wouldn't be limited by orthodoxy—"Watermelon Man" was structurally an R&B piece that sounded like it might have been written for Booker T & the MGs. However, he was meanwhile composing such beautiful, elaborate acoustic jazz pieces as "Maiden Voyage," "Cantaloupe Island" and "Speak Like a Child."
Hancock's early experiences with Miles Davis—he played in Miles' band for five years in the '60s—helped form his inclusive attitude toward music. Yet it was far from a one-way street; you can hear Hancock's sway in his technique and use of electronic instruments on landmark Davis albums of the period, such as ESP and Nefertiti.
"Miles never had tunnel vision about jazz," says Hancock. "He listened to James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, flamenco guitarists, all kinds of music. And I placed Miles up on the highest pedestal—if Miles is listening to something, then it's got to be cool. I found through Miles not only my own musical identity, but also certain approaches and attitudes that I really responded to and that I hope to continue with until the day I die."
In the '70s, Hancock released Headhunters, a benchmark in the world of jazz, funk and rock. The album sounded something like Sly Stone and James Brown OD-ing on Sun Ra while Miles Davis cheered like an idiot from the sidelines. Hancock's next move? He returned to playing more conventional-style jazz. But in 1983, he shocked the world once again with the scratch-heavy, techno-industrial single "Rockit"—the biggest hit of his career, as well as one of the most popular videos of the nascent MTV generation.
Since then, Hancock's career has been a stylistic tightrope walk. He continues to piss off purists of every musical stripe while releasing consistently adventurous albums that refuse to be reduced to a formula.
"There's a thing called human rights, and you can choose to play any kind of music that you want to play," says Hancock, sounding more than a bit pissed off at his detractors. "I think sincerity is the key. If you do something just because somebody else wants you to do it, then you're not standing up for what you believe in. And I believe it's very important to develop that kind of confidence and courage, to stand up for something you feel very passionately about. It ain't my problem if somebody doesn't like what I'm doing. They prejudge and close their minds and never actually hear whether or not there's any value in it."
It's impossible to predict where Hancock will move next. A couple of years ago, he released an unusually conservative tribute album to George Gershwin. But his latest album, Future 2 Future, is rife with hip-hop samples and programming, even as the musicianship and improvisation remain stunning. Hancock's gig at the Galaxy reflects his current aural appetite, with Ozomatli DJ Cut Chemist sharing the bill.
"I hear hip-hop as an extension of or an answer to the funk thing because the groove is there," notes Hancock. "But hip-hop has its own decided identity from what we'd normally call funk. It borrows from the funk genre. Jazz, meanwhile, is a music that has always been eclectic and always borrowed from other genres and also lent its own sound and mode of expression to other genres of music, too. Jazz is a very inclusive kind of music; it's not exclusive, although people try to make it that way from time to time."
Among the "people" Hancock refers to is notorious traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, whose intolerance for painting outside the lines borders on the reactionary. Ironically, Marsalis got his start playing in Hancock's band, and the boss man even produced his protg's debut album. These days, the relationship between the two seems to be a strained role reversal, with the 40-year-old Marsalis as the intolerant old geezer.
"When Wynton was young, we'd do interviews, and this guy would just go off on stuff," Hancock recalls. "He had this very conservative, judgmental kind of attitude. But then when I would speak to him personally, he would completely back off that.
"I haven't been in a debate with him recently, but whenever I discussed creativity and inclusivity with him, he said he agreed with me. So you tell me—what does that mean?"
Marsalis' strong opinions, whatever they might be at the time, have always put him in a bind.
"I remember when he was interviewed and he called Sonny Rollins a charlatan and called Miles . . . I don't remember exactly what he called him, something or other," Hancock says. "He came up and told me, 'Oh, man, oh, shit, I said something about Miles for an article, what should I do?' He went too far with it, got off on a tangent, and he knew it.
"So I suggested that he tell Miles about it before he read the article. And he did that, and you know what Miles said? He said, 'Awww, man, don't worry about that. I did the same thing to Dizzy.' But you know what? Miles did not do that to Dizzy. Miles just said that to make Wynton feel better. Isn't that cool? What a great sacrifice Miles did there. Miles always had a lot of love and respect for people who were trying to do something, even if they had a different opinion than he did. He respected anyone that was being honest about what they believed in.
"But see, I'm not sure what Wynton really believes because I've heard him say so many different things at different times. I don't know where the word 'honesty' fits in with him. I don't know how he defines it. Where's he really at? I know what he says and what he's done publicly, and I don't like what he's done publicly. And for my ears, his attitude affects his playing."
For his part, Hancock admits he might be every bit as extreme in his refusal to see any form of music compartmentalized. But he can't help himself.
"When you have a birthday and someone brings you a present, it's so much fun because you don't know what's in that box," Hancock says. "You have to open the box to see what's in there, to find out whether you like it or not. You have to experience it before you can make that decision. That's what I feel like: music is a birthday, like Christmas or something."
Herbie Hancock performs with Cut Chemist at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Mon., 8 p.m. $32.50.
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