HERBIE HANCOCK AND ND THE MELBOURNE CLUBUB CLOSING ITS DOORS
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 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