Thirteen Ways of Looking at Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock is a stone monster of modern jazz piano—one of a very few living players who is an influence on everybody, baby. Cat played with Miles Davis when he was still a little pup, negotiating the hippest rhythm section in the Milky Way for seven years. Then, he made the funkiest fusion album of the ‘70s (Headhunters), proving that he could play downtown as well as up. Top that off with “Rockit” in the ‘80s, and you have a man of unquestioned groovitude and musical intelligence over many decades.
Descend Starbucks Coffee—that ubiquitous presence of civility and pseudo-sophisticated caffeine-mellow that has turned a generation of potential punk-rocking kids into Norah Jones-digging wannabe poets. Sure, they can sell coffee for four bucks per cup, but must they also become a record company? Herbie Hancock, man often perched on the cutting edge, orders a grande, sits on the couch, and puts out this record, Possibilities, with them.
Now, pardner, warn’t it just last year that the venerable and never-out-of-style (and late) Ray Charles made an album of pop-star duets? Even won a couple Grammies with that bad boy. Why not our friend Herbie? Why not a string of duets with luminaries and talented unknowns (but mainly with pop stars)?
And why not John Mayer? The girls love him, and he’s a got a kind of jazzy little swing to his voice. “Stitched Up” is a funk ditty he can sing over. Herbie lays down some acoustic piano, sounding every bit like one of the countless pianists who have lifted a Hancockism or two from the master himself—a carbon copy of a carbon copy who happens to be the original. Nice little track. But little.
What other instrumentalist has thrived on this kind of pop star duet format in recent years? Yes, indeed—welcome Carlos Santana. “Safiatou” sounds every bit like a Santana tune, with its Chester Thompson organ and Dennis Chambers drums riding over Latin percussion. The usually unmistakable Angelique Kidjo is vaguely wasted on vocals. Is this a Herbie Hancock album or some kind of ill-considered tribute disc?
Bring in the pipes! Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” is just the thing for Christina Aguilera. No doubt she can sing, but maybe we all preferred her as a genie in a bottle. And it suddenly seems like a century since Herbie coaxed a brilliant vocal from Joni Mitchell on his mixed-success Gershwin album.
“I Do It For Your Love”: a truly terrific Paul Simon song. If this were on a Paul Simon record, with a lovely, light guest solo from Herbie Hancock, we’d all be intrigued. A light Brazilian feel is just thing, though I think all purchasers of the disc will want to know why the liner notes credit Gina Gershon (loved her in Showgirls and Face/Off!) on jew’s harp. Gina—is that you?
Annie Lennox doing a Paula Cole song? Herbie, man—have you been drinking a few too many lattes? “Hush, Hush, Hush” was a mistake.
Well, there was no way you were gonna keep Der Shtingle away from a project like this. Yet it’s a good match. African guitar phenom Lionel Loueke smacks a hip bass-line arrangement on this sturdy Sting-tune, and the Englishman in New York provides the kind of spirited vocal that his solo career has mostly lacked. Herbie is almost irrelevant to the track, but we’ll give him credit anyway. Nice.
And then a coffeehouse trifecta comes to town: Johnny Lang and Joss Stone doing a U2 song, “When Love Comes to Town”. Suddenly Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter seem a million miles away. When Mr. Hancock solos here, he is oddly adventurous, as if to suggest that some sliver of him may actually object. I know I do.
Damien Rice singing Billie Holiday’s “Hush Now, Don’t Explain”: one of the most singularly unexciting performance to be laid down in 2005. Meditative, subtle, flat, expressionless. Not rescuable, and not rescued by Mr. Hancock’s decision to reach for something within his tradition.
Perhaps things could be livened up with a tune by one of the American Greats, Stevie Wonder? I’m sooooo sorry, the choice is “I Just Called to Say ‘I Love You’”, one the Mr. Wonder’s least appealing concoctions. The vocalist here is a Stevie clone named Raul Midon, and the band takes the song at a glacial tempo, with synch orchestration from here to the window. When Stevie himself shows up for the obligatory harmonica solo, it’s much too little, entirely too late.
And finally: the first part of what is alleged to be a “four-part suite” improvised by Mr. Hancock and King Tokemeister of the late, lamented groove band, Phish: Mr. Trey Anastasio. Trey can certainly play guitar, as many a weave-dancing, grill-cheese eating, jam-loving Vermonter can tell you. But he barely plays on this almost entirely melody-free instrumental. You wander over to your stereo to see if one of the channels is out, because all this track consists of is a bland, tinkly rhythm section pattern. Phish never put out anything this wishy-washy, and neither has Herbie. But it’s a fitting end for an album that leaves you thinking: Can this really be serious? Where is the music anyway, man?