JAZZ HANDS

HER­BIE HAN­COCK AND ND THE MEL­BOURNE CLUBUB CLOSING ITS DOORS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - writes Lyn­den Bar­ber

Next week, key­board leg­ends Her­bie Han­cock and Chick Corea will ap­pear on stage as a duo at con­certs in Bris­bane and Syd­ney and at the Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Jazz Fes­ti­val. While each is an im­por­tant fig­ure in his own right, to­gether they make an ir­re­sistible team. Hav­ing earned their stripes as young­sters play­ing with Latin jazz per­cus­sion­ist Mongo San­ta­maria in the mid-1960s, they played separately and to­gether with Miles Davis. Han­cock sat for sev­eral years in the pi­ano chair in Davis’s clas­sic 60s quin­tet, and both con­trib­uted to their em­ployer’s epochal turn to elec­tric tex­tures and rock and funk rhythms in the late 60s.

Han­cock and Corea also used their Davis ex­pe­ri­ence as the launch­ing pad for their own suc­cess­ful groups in elec­tric jazz-fu­sion. Han­cock would later score a hip-hop hit sin­gle with 1983’s Rockit, mir­ror­ing his com­mer­cial suc­cess with the catchy Wa­ter­melon Man for San­ta­maria, and his best­selling Head Hun­ters al­bum in the early 70s. Yet for all that, both play­ers have never forgotten their jazz roots and have con­tin­ued to play acous­tic pi­ano in jazz set­tings.

When Re­view speaks to Han­cock and asks how he and Corea ap­proach play­ing to­gether (this is their third world tour as a duo, though the first in 37 years), the mu­si­cian is quick to ac­knowl­edge how much the pair has in com­mon.

“We lis­ten a lot,” he says. “We trust each other a lot and we trust our­selves. We have had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences in life and in mu­sic, and we are ap­prox­i­mately the same age (they’re in their mid-70s). We’ve both ex­plored a lot of ter­ri­to­ries and are both con­sid­ered pi­o­neers in what is called the fu­sion pe­riod of jazz, and get­ting into clas­si­cal mu­sic at dif­fer­ent times.

“We have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to work with, and the idea of do­ing a duo means we were not con­fined by hav­ing to keep a par­tic­u­lar tempo to a whole piece. We can at any time slow down, speed up, play out of tempo, play a very out­there mu­si­cal ap­proach, and there are vary­ing de­grees of that, too. And we can both go into a funkier thing if we want to.”

Han­cock says the pair re­lies heav­ily on the Great Amer­i­can Song­book: “Gersh­win, Cole Porter, pieces we’ve done with Miles Davis”.

“We don’t even have a set num­ber of pieces. We have mu­sic that we put up on the stand, but the or­der of the mu­sic is just on the fly and also there’s the el­e­ment of just cre­at­ing mu­sic from noth­ing. So it’s very chal­leng­ing but it’s also a lot of fun,” he says.

Given their in­di­vid­ual stature and shared back­ground, one may ex­pect ri­valry and ego to get in the way of a suc­cess­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion, but there’s no sign of it. Han­cock ap­pears philo­soph­i­cal about the fact Corea re­placed him with Miles. “Prior to that I tem­po­rar­ily re­placed Chick with San­ta­maria. It was in the early 60s — ac­tu­ally it was in 1962 — I got the gig. It was a week­end when Mongo was be­tween pi­ano play­ers. Many years later I found Chick was the pi­anist who couldn’t make the week­end.”

Get­ting out of the Davis line-up, he adds, led to him start­ing his own “Mwan­dishi band”, unof­fi­cially us­ing the Swahili name Han­cock tem­po­rar­ily adopted about that time. Han­cock had al­ready proven him­self a fine leader with his own record­ings for Blue Note; the haunt­ing com­po­si­tions Maiden Voy­age and Can­taloupe Is­land had be­come jazz stan­dards. In con­trast the Mwan­dishi band was elec­tric and funky, but with an ex­per­i­men­tal edge. Af­ter three fine al­bums that failed to sell, Han­cock de­cided to go for a more ac­ces­si­ble sound.

A fol­lower of the Nichiren branch of Bud­dhism, Han­cock was chant­ing one day when he had an in­sight. As he told vet­eran critic Leonard Feather in 1974: “I had been a snob.” He had been try­ing to reach the ex­alted lev­els of greats such as Davis, Char­lie Parker and John Col- trane but sud­denly re­alised: “I’m none of those guys or any­where near them, so I might as well for­get try­ing to be in that cat­e­gory, for­get try­ing to be an­other ge­nius or leg­end in my own time.”

This en­abled him to feel “sat­is­fied in just mak­ing some nice mu­sic and mak­ing peo­ple happy” and led to his record­ing his big­gest suc­cess in 1973’s Head Hun­ters, the high­est sell­ing jazz al­bum at that point. Yet, de­spite its pop­u­lar­ity, the al­bum was, he re­alised, “as in­no­va­tive as any­thing else I’ve done in the past”.

That may have been 40 years ago, but it helps ex­plain a yin-yang as­pect to Han­cock’s mu­si­cal per­sona. The two sides to his sen­si­bil­ity are an as­cetic, even ab­stract one, and a more ac­ces­si­ble side. The main rea­son he broke up the Mwan­dishi band, he says, is that he “got tired of be­ing un­teth­ered. I had the urge to play some­thing that was a lit­tle earthy, closer to my own roots and in­flu­enced by mu­sic I’d been lis­ten­ing to as a kid. I’d been lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal mu­sic but also R&B. I’d also been lis­ten­ing to Sly Stone and also to avant-garde, Archie Shepp.”

He also gained in­spi­ra­tion from watch­ing R&B out­fit the Pointer Sis­ters on shared bills: “I could see they were mak­ing mu­sic that was more ac­ces­si­ble, that didn’t re­quire ab­so­lute con­cen­tra­tion for the au­di­ence. It was more fun. There’s noth­ing wrong with do­ing mu­sic that’s more chal­leng­ing for the au­di­ence, I just wanted to ex­pand my own out­put. They were do­ing new stuff, cre­at­ing their own di­rec­tion that had el­e­ments of mu­sic from the 1940s and maybe post­war styles … It was very in­ter­est­ing to me be­cause no­body else was do­ing what they were do­ing. I like the idea of some­thing that was unique; it didn’t have to be un­teth­ered.”

One of Han­cock’s gifts is the in­stinct to not swing wildly be­tween his two in­ner ex­tremes, the es­o­teric v the pop­ulist, but to find ways to re­solve the ten­sion be­tween them. Ex­em­pli­fy­ing that spirit are his oc­ca­sional col­lab­o­ra­tions with Joni Mitchell, a singer whose tal­ent for melody co­ex­ists with a so­phis­ti­cated har­monic sense. Han­cock first played with her on Min­gus, her 1979 record­ing with mu­si­cian, com­poser and band­leader Char­lie Min­gus, af­ter he re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion via phone from bassist Jaco Pas­to­rius. When the lat­ter told him his old Davis sax­o­phone col­league Wayne Shorter was on the record­ing, any hes­i­ta­tion dis­ap­peared.

“I’ll said, ‘I’ll be right over,’ ” says Han­cock. “This was re­ally the first time I met Joni. She wanted us not to dumb things down for a pop singer but to stretch out. So I im­me­di­ately changed my idea of what Joni Mitchell would be and we re­ally hit it off. I’ve played a lot of con­certs with her, in­clud­ing sev­eral for char­ity. We did that for sev­eral years, we kept up this friend­ship.” In 2002 he was part of an all-star line-up on Mitchell’s al­bum Trav­el­ogue, fea­tur­ing jazz orches­tra ar­range­ments of her songs, and five years later recorded his own al­bum of mainly Mitchell com­po­si­tions, River: The Joni Let­ters, with Mitchell, Leonard Co­hen and No­rah Jones among the guest vo­cal­ists.

Since then there has been no sign that, at 75, Han­cock is slow­ing down, de­spite a dif­fi­cult pe­riod with drugs about 15 years ago. Last year he pub­lished his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Pos­si­bil­i­ties, in which he can­didly re­vealed that in the late 90s he had been ad­dicted to co­caine but man­aged to give up the drug fol­low­ing a fam­ily in­ter­ven­tion. It was a shock­ing ad­mis­sion to many, es­pe­cially given his de­vo­tion to Bud­dhism. In the book, Han­cock says his mis­take was to try the drug just once. Af­ter that, he was un­able to re­sist go­ing back. To his re­gret and shame, his habit led to him ly­ing to his fam­ily and miss­ing his daugh­ter’s 30th birth­day party.

He’s well over that now. Last year he was named Charles Eliot Nor­ton pro­fes­sor of po­etry at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, de­liv­er­ing six lec­tures on the theme “the ethics of jazz” (the lec­tures de­fine po­etry to in­clude “po­etic ex­pres­sion in lan­guage, mu­sic or fine arts”). The ex­pe­ri­ence, he re­calls, was “ex­tremely re­ward­ing for me and they seemed to be very happy. I got a chance to talk about break­ing the rules, for ex­am­ple. When we’re stu­dents, we study the peo­ple who break the rules; peo­ple who fol­lowed rules, broke them, and then cre­ated new rules. I also talked about Miles, hu­man­ism, Bud­dhism, and my own ex­pe­ri­ences in life and those ex­pe­ri­ences that go be­yond me be­ing a mu­si­cian.”

He also talked about cul­tural diplo­macy, re­flect­ing his role as a UNESCO good­will am­bas­sador. “Jazz has al­ways op­er­ated in a diplo­matic at­mos­phere, from when it trav­elled out­wards to France and Asia and to Australia. It’s now an in­ter­na­tional mu­sic.”

JAZZ HAS AL­WAYS OP­ER­ATED IN A DIPLO­MATIC AT­MOS­PHERE

HER­BIE HAN­COCK

Her­bie Han­cock and Chick Corea play Bris­bane’s QPAC, May 26; Mel­bourne Hamer Hall, May 28; Syd­ney Opera House, June 1.

‘We trust each other a lot and we trust our­selves,’ Her­bie Han­cock says of his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chick Corea

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