LOS ANGELES—Herbie Hancock was barely 23 and awestruck when he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963. He figured the best he could do was make Davis feel comfortable, so for two months he followed blueprints devised by the trumpeter’s former pianists, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans.
“What I didn’t realize was that inside I was getting very frustrated,” says Hancock, whose quartet performs opening night at the Detroit International Jazz Festival on Friday.
“After a couple of months of trying to play what I thought would please Miles, I said to myself, `I’ve got to let this out.’ So the next gig, which I think was in Chicago, I just played what I really wanted, and if it clashed with something Miles did, I threw it in there anyway.
“After the set I thought I was going to get fired. Miles walked up and said”—and here Hancock imitates Davis’ famous raspy whisper—” `Why didn’t you play like that before?’
“Miles wanted to hear me. That set me free.”
The lesson launched Hancock on a course that changed the sound of jazz. He quickly became an innovator, reconciling a studied sophistication with a common-man touch rooted in the blues. Pastoral impressionism, startling linear invention, ebullient swing, rhythmic shape, emotional pitch, spontaneous intuition and down-home soul stood in Aristotelian balance.
Musicians study his solos like scripture, and many of his songs, among them “Maiden Voyage” and “Dolphin Dance,” have entered the bloodstream of jazz.
“To my mind, Herbie Hancock is the most influential jazz pianist of the last 50 years,” says Detroit pianist Kenn Cox. “He almost single-handedly changed the style of jazz piano with his use of impressionist harmony while retaining the all-important elements of blues and swing.”
Hancock’s go-for-broke attitude electrifies the bandstand. Very little in jazz matches the anticipation that rises when Hancock starts a solo, because to a degree unusual even in an art based on improvisation, you never know what’s going to happen—and there’s a chance you’re about to hear the greatest piano solo you’ve ever heard. His right hand strikes like lightning.
“He has this spirit of reckless abandon when he walks on to the stage,” says pianist George Colligan.
Hancock, 67, traces much of that attitude back to Davis, whose revolutionary 1960s quintet was built on the rhythm section of Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. The group developed a hide-and-seek approach to the beat, the interactive freedom growing mystical after saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined in 1964.
“I pay you to practice on the bandstand,” the trumpeter told his charges, meaning he wanted them to play in the moment, not regurgitate what they practiced at home.
“That’s what jazz is about,” says Hancock. “I feel comfortable exploring. Actually, I feel uncomfortable exploring—but that’s comfortable to me. That’s the secret: You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
“It takes courage, but like Miles used to say”—again, the rasp—“It’s only `My Funny Valentine.’”
For the last 30 years, Hancock has lived in two worlds, alternating straight-ahead jazz projects with crossover recordings that made him a star. His current quartet, which includes guitarist Lionel Loueke, electric bassist Nathan East and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, suggests a middle ground. Hancock volleys between acoustic piano and synthesizers, performing his own standards, pop covers and earthy rhythms that recall his Head Hunters band in the `70s.
Hancock lives in the same well-to-do, vaguely Tuscan home he bought near West Hollywood in the early `70s, when he relocated from New York. He lives with his German-born wife of 39 years, Gigi, along with a dog and two cats. The couple’s daughter, Jessica, works for her father managing press and other affairs. There’s a cramped recording studio out back, outfitted with state-of-the-art keyboards, computers and a mixing board as big as the Hollywood Bowl.
The living room is tastefully cluttered with eclectic furnishings, African masks, paintings and knick-knacks from the Hancocks’ travels. His 1987 Oscar for “`Round Midnight” rests on a shelf, a Fazioli grand piano sits in a corner. One wall boasts a vibrant painting of Gigi and Jessica by actor Billy Dee Williams.
Hancock has reached a level of celebrity and wealth unusual for someone whose fundamental contributions to American culture are so hip. Mongo Santamaria’s cover of Hancock’s soul-jazz blues “Watermelon Man” reached No. 10 on the pop charts in 1963, and he was soon writing for commercials and films.
In 1973, he scored the biggest hit of his career with “Chameleon,” a built-to-boogie funk jam that made him a pop icon. His proto-electronica hit “Rockit” (1983) landed on MTV. Hancock’s fee for a gig like the jazz festival is around $65,000, and he works constantly, but there are no obvious signs of a gilded lifestyle save a Ferrari in the carport and a vacation home in Baja, Mexico.
Car nuts take note: Hancock still owns the rare 1963 Shelby Cobra he bought out of the showroom when “Watermelon Man” hit the jackpot. Auction experts value it at $500,000 to $1 million.
Fit and handsome with smooth skin, stylish glasses and jet black hair (the result of a quality dye), he looks far younger than his age. He’s wearing a snazzy striped shirt from the Italian designer Etro that sells for about $260 in nearby Beverly Hills, though he was blissfully unaware of its provenance since his wife bought it for him.
For a while on this July day he can’t stop talking about his iPhone. “Here’s my latest toy,” he says, pulling it out of his pocket with a Christmas morning grin. He has loaded it up with movies and music, including the final CD by the late saxophonist Michael Brecker and rough cuts from Hancock’s upcoming “River: The Joni Letters,” a collection of music by Joni Mitchell due next month with such diverse singers as Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Luciana Souza.
Hancock is a gadget guy. As a kid he would take apart a wristwatch to see how it worked. He entered Grinnell College in Iowa as an engineering major before switching to music, and high-tech wizardry, from synthesizers to digital technology, has always fired his imagination. Ron Carter remembers that whenever Davis’ band traveled to Germany or Japan, Hancock would buy a new tape deck or other gizmo.
“If you listen to some of those bootleg records, the reason you don’t hear any piano at the start of the first tune is because Herbie was always trying to put this unit together under the piano as we’re playing,” Carter says.
Though he has a 1,000-watt intellect, Hancock can be a bit of space cadet. His conversation can wander, though entertainingly so, and punctuality has been a lifelong journey. “Other than his always being late, I’d go to the mat for Herbie,” says Carter, chuckling.
Chicago-born, Hancock began piano lessons at 7 and was gifted enough to play a Mozart concerto movement with the Chicago Symphony at 11. The trumpeter Donald Byrd gave the precocious 20-year-old his first break in 1960, and by 1962 he was recording as a leader for Blue Note. Hancock forged a new post-bop piano template by synthesizing disparate styles and adding his imagination and the progressive currents in the air.
“The avant-garde was thriving, and it was the `60s,” says Hancock. “It was a very fruitful time for civil rights, social consciousness. With that kind of excitement and that kind of creative activity, I was just trying to find out more about what was happening. The electronic scene in classical music was happening, there was John Cage, and Tony Williams turned me on to Karlheinz Stockhausen.”
Diversity was his calling card as a composer; he wrote hummable melodies tied to shrewd harmony, pulsating abstractions and catchy vamps. His classical training, especially Ravel, colored his palette and touch, and he kept his ears open, studying composition briefly at the Manhattan School of Music and dissecting scores by Barto k and Stravinsky.
Carter says playing with Hancock is both rewarding and a challenge because he’s such a brilliant listener, switching gears instantly based on the ideas ricocheting on the bandstand. His risk-taking inspired the same in others.
“I’ll play notes with Herbie that I wouldn’t with other piano players because they are unable or unwilling to relate to that note and how it can affect their chords,” says Carter. “Herbie does that better than anyone.”
Not all of Herbie’s experiments have borne fruit, and some of his commercial endeavors have been banal and beneath his talent. But musicians will tell you that some of the music that critics decry as a sell-out, such as “Head Hunters,” is underrated. The stigma of fusion masks the adventure.
“It’s the way he has a dialogue with the drums, the way he builds excitement and tension using rhythm,” says Colligan. “He’ll sometimes play something that’s really simple but where he places it has a powerful impact.”
Saying less with more is another lesson from Davis. “I like presenting something that has an access point for anybody,” says Hancock. “Not always, but I do have a tendency to do that. But then through the access point, I slip in a bunch of slick things too.”
HERBIE HANCOCK ON CD
Start with his iconic mid-`60s Blue Note records ” Maiden Voyage” and “Empyrean Isles.”
“Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings” (left) documents his early `70s electric-acoustic band.
“Head Hunters” (Columbia, 1973) made Hancock a crossover star, but the sequel, “Thrust,” is more inspired. Recorded live, “Flood” (Sony International) is better still.
The best of his recent Verve CDs are ” Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall” (acoustic quintet), “1+1” with Wayne Shorter (right) and the high-concept “Gershwin’s World.”
The Miles Davis Quintet classics include “My Funny Valentine,” “Miles Smiles,” “Sorcerer” and “Nefertiti.” Don’t miss Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Oblique,” Lee Morgan’s “Cornbread,” Joe Henderson’s “Power to the People ” and Ron Carter’s “Third Plane.”