Herbie Hancock: The Imagine Project

A mish-mash of collaborations by the great jazz pianist with various singers covering songs about global harmony. Good intentions paving an aimless road.

Herbie Hancock

The Imagine Project

Label: Herbie Hancock Records
US Release Date: 2010-06-21
UK Release Date: 2010-06-20

Is it churlish to find extremely good intentions wrong-footed? Is it unpleasant to criticize one of the finest musicians on the planet because his work in "merely" entertaining in a patchwork kind of way? What standing does some critic have to toss tomatoes at the likes of the astonishing and—by all measures I've ever heard of—truly generous Herbie Hancock?

Herbie Hancock is a superstar jazz musician—from the grace of "Maiden Voyage" to the hip-swinging funk of "Watermelon Man", from the slippery groove of "Chameleon" to his cunning Mitchell covers on The Joni Letters. And he's the rare jazz musician to pen a legit pop hit song, "Rock-it". If anyone has earned to right a little indulgence, maybe it's Herbie Hancock.

So, I'm going to start by saying that The Imagine Project is a creative melding of musical styles from all over the planet, and the sentiments in the lyrics of the songs are uplifting. When the individual songs here line up properly, they are exceptional and unusual pop music—creative and refreshing and in the service a greater good.

But as a collection of music by a uniquely brilliant pianist and composer, The Imagine Project is a glitzy but spotty collection. It's entertaining, but in patches. It's sonically gorgeous almost always, but it is musically compelling . . . too rarely.

The title track and opening tune, John Lennon's iconic but done-to-death "Imagine" is a case in point. It is a crazy hybrid tune that uses three guest star vocalists and several styles but generates little sustained magic. The opening suggests some wonder—Hancock alone at the acoustic piano playing some suggestive, impressionistic chords, with the soul voice of Pink entering tartly on the well-known melody. And Hancock knows just what not to play, putting in silences like his great predecessor Bill Evans might have. But soon enough, there is Seal singing as well. We need two guest stars here? Well, they harmonize, so it's cool. But then there is a new groove, with piano and synthesizer dodging each other in the mix—busier but still cool. And there's Pink again. But it's not Pink. It's India Arie. Which is to say, wha? And moments later there is African chanting over the groove and, wait, a guitar solo by Jeff Beck. Does the track sound good? Sure it does, but in three or four different ways. You could see it as a crazy jambalaya of "Imagine" visions, but what it's not is a single coherent vision.

This is The Imagine Project in a nutshell.

I really like the version of "Space Captain", featuring vocalist Susan Tedeschi delivering blues conviction and her husband, slide guitarist Derek Trucks, dueling with Hancock's piano in the breaks. Originally recorded by Joe Cocker, this tune is amiably straightforward, a gospel-rocker that doesn't ladle on too much forced eclecticism. But what of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'", where the great folk song is put across with a combination of Hancock impressionism, African guitar prodding, an Irish vocal soloist (Lisa Hannigan) and, what the heck, The Chieftains, laying out some plaintive fiddling. It is a bit of a mess.

And on it goes throughout Imagine. The Juanes feature, "La Tierra", is slinky Latin pop, with a great mix between measured vocal and piano accents. But "Tomorrow Never Knows" with Dave Matthews is an uncomfortable mix of Beatle-ish psychedelia (backwards guitars, that kind of thing) and world music accents. "Don't Give Up" is a gentle soul ballad for Pink and John Legend, but "Tamant Tilay/Exodus" is some kind of grooving mutation combining middle-eastern music with Los Lobos and a lot of swirling Fender Rhodes coloration. "The Song Goes On" mashes up Indian music, Wayne Shorter's soprano saxophone (so far so good . . .) with a backbeat and Chaka Kahn . . . and with slashing post-bop piano runs.

When this kind of wild genre-defying works, the music can be a great success. And no doubt this is Hancock's intent here. I have nothing but admiration for Matt Glaser and his band Wayfaring Strangers, who manage to fuse bluegrass, klezmer and jazz. But Strangers work toward the same basic combination on each track of a collection, putting together a focused band that finds ten ways to seek its fusion on each album. On Imagine, Hancock is trying to cook up a different bouillabaisse on every track, and the plainer ones are uniformly more palatable. Does that mean he should not have tried so hard? Do the simpler projects demonstrate the overreaching of the more strained ones?

The song I like the most here is "A Change is Gonna Come", the classic Sam Cooke tune. The guest here is the English singer-songwriter James Morrison, but he is not the star of the track. Rather, the hit here is Hancock's unabashedly jazzy but clear rhythm section arrangement, which lets his conversational piano shine as a jazz instrument with plenty of room for exploration while still providing a sense of contemporary pulse. This is the longest solo by the leader on the record, and why not? This is the pulsing, creative take that Hancock brought to Joni Mitchell's great rock-era tunes on his last recording, and its relative absence here is a weakness. Just because Hancock wants to court guest-star popularity here does not mean that he can't give us his own best work.

The good intentions and spirit of this project—the lyrics that celebrate mankind's unity and the attempt in the music to sew together the globe's many styles—ought to count for something. I'll leave the ultimate balance to you. But on a purely musical basis, The Imagine Project is merely okay, a B- or so, a middling effort from a giant musician.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.