Time Out meets Herbie Hancock

World’s most famous jazz musician opens up about politics, poetry, Miles and music Discuss this article

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© ITP Images

Herbie Hancock just might be the most famous jazz musician on the planet – probably because he doesn’t confine himself to playing jazz. Especially in recent years: the 74-year-old legend’s last three genre-bending records have fused pop, R&B, folk and world influences, featuring vocalists from P!nk to Paul Simon, Seal to Santana, Tina Turner to Tinarwian, John’s both Mayer and Legend... from Chaka Chan to Christina Aguilera to Leonard Cohen and many more in between. The middle of those three LPs, Joni Mitchell tribute River became the second ever ‘jazz’ record to win the Best Album Grammy in 2007.

Of course before all this style-fusing crossover, elder statesman business Hancock earned his jazz stripes with the best. After signing to the iconic Blue Note label and releasing breakout hit ‘Watermelon Man’ in 1962, a year later the pianist was recruited by none other than Miles Davis – AKA the best-selling and most influential jazz musician of the past 60 years. As a member of Davis’ historically-feted ‘Second Great Quintet’, alongside fellow then-young luminaries Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Hancock and co revolutionised jazz with a ‘time, no changes’ approach that broke harmonic confines, redefined rhythmic rules, and generally played rings around everyone else in the business. Arguably, the small group acoustic approach to jazz has not been bettered or furthered since, as evidenced when each of the band's players plugged in to pioneer the electric jazz-fusion evolutions of the ’70s.


Alongside Shorter’s Weather Report, Herbie was at the forefront of these electric endeavours – his 1973 jazz-funk LP Headhunters remains the second best-selling ‘jazz’ album to this day (behind Miles' Kind of Blue). Similar innovations were made fusing jazz with the emerging hip-hop turntablism on 1983’s Future Music and electronica on 2001’s Future 2 Future, the pianist plugging the gaps with returns to his acoustic roots and supergroup tours with the best players in the business.

Listen to our beginner’s guide to Herbie Hancock

The last decade or so have seen Hancock rightly embraced as a US national treasure and an icon of its greatest musical art form. In 2011 he was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, in 2013 he joined UCLA as a ceremonial professor and a year later followed in the shoes of Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky to be named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University.

Perhaps it’s forgivable, then, that Hancock has been musically quiet since 2010’s The Imagine Project, an ambitious conceptual fusion LP recorded with legions of collaborators over a period of years and in seven different countries. But aside from the above engagements Hancock has kept busy, he tells us, penning a forthcoming memoir Herbie Hancock: Possibilities, preparing for a summer tour with fellow legend Wayne Shorter and a 2014 duet tour with Chick Corea, and working on a collaboration with electronic producer Flying Lotus.

Still, in 2014 Hancock’s website lists just one live engagement to date, a headline-stealing date at the Abu Dhabi Festival on Friday March 21. It was a few days before this gig we caught up with the legend at the Emirates Palace Hotel. What followed was a fascinating 30 minute conversation, the musical legend warm, inspiring, funny and profound as he opened up about politics, poetry, inspiration, Miles and music. Here’s some of the highlights...

Click here to read the interview

By Rob Garratt
Time Out Doha,

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