“I’m interested in human beings,” Herbie Hancock tells Elvis Costello on tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel). Hancock, one of the crucial figures in 20th century jazz and winner of last year’s Grammy Award for Album of the Year (River: The Joni Letters), is speaking about his music in relation to its audience, about the bond between the origin of a sound and its destination. The manner in which he breaks down the particulars of performance — whether it be a Gershwin standard, some Headhunters funk, or early-’80s robo-jazz — makes this episode of Spectacle one of the very best.
The conversation between Costello and Hancock moves chronologically through Hancock’s career, starting with his early training as a classical pianist. This education gave Hancock a “foundation for the mechanics of music”, he explains, and jazz would come later — jazz he would learn not in a lesson but from other musicians and from transcribing records. Growing up in Chicago, Hancock was also exposed to R&B on a regular basis. All of these musical influences have had an effect on the kind of musician Hancock is — malleable, fluid, a magnet for change. He demonstrates by playing his hit “Watermelon Man” (along with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Karriem Riggins) in differing styles: first as early-’60s hard bop and then as early-’70s Headhunters funk.
Hancock, McBride, and Riggins also turn in a great performance of “Chan’s Song (Never Said)”, which Hancock originally wrote for the 1986 film ‘Round Midnight, and later, they play Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin” with Costello on vocal. Hancock explains exactly how and why he approaches these particular tunes, offering insightful perspectives on the nitty-gritty. And if that doesn’t grab you, he’s also got a heck of a Miles Davis story.