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Herbie Hancock Aspires To Be Different, Always
Herbie Hancock won a surprise Grammy Award for Album of the Year with his 2007 release “River/The Joni Letters.”
And now the legendary keyboardist, band leader and songwriter would like to repeat — the success, but not the music.
“I decided quite a few records ago that from now on, I want every record to be different from any record I’ve ever made before,” explains Hancock, who turned 70 this year with the release of “The Imagine Project” in June. “It doesn’t mean I close myself off completely from anything I’ve ever done before, but I don’t want anything to be just a sequel to something else or a copy in any way of something I’ve done.
“There’s a tendency for people to be discouraged from trying something new or doing something in a different way. I think that’s very detrimental to the creative spirit that all human beings possess, and I don’t want to be a party to that.”
That’s certainly not what’s happened over the course of the Chicago-born Hancock’s 50-year career, during which he’s won a dozen Grammy Awards and a 1986 Academy Award for the “Round Midnight” soundtrack and played with Miles Davis, Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, among others. Though well-credentialed in traditional jazz styles, Hancock is one of the pioneers of the jazz-rock fusion movement with his band the Headhunters and won a Grammy and five MTV Music Video Awards for his cutting-edge 1983 electronic instrumental “Rockit.” In 2008 he helped produce “RoboCop,” a track for Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak”
“I really believe there’s an infinite number of ways to look at things,” says Hancock, who was classically trained as a youth and later studied at Grinnell College in Iowa and at the Manhattan School of Music. “The human being has the capacity to create something different every time. I don’t think creativity is limited; you just have to have the kind of faith and courage — in yourself and others — to examine things, and in new ways.”
That philosophy, in fact, is what kept Hancock from quickly following up the success of “River.”
“I always think, ‘If I’m going to do a record, why would I want to do a record?’ ” the practicing Buddhist explains. “In other words, what would be the purpose? There had to be a purpose.” Hancock did know that he wanted to “somehow address some issues of today,” but how to do that was a mystery until his attorney broached an idea of using John Lennon’s 1971 hit “Imagine” “as sort of a centerpiece of a record that’s basically about peace ... which I think is the most pressing issue of the day.”
“It was really kind of what I was looking for,” recalls Hancock, who then “started thinking about how I would address that issue.”
He and producer Larry Klein, who also worked on “River/The Joni Letters,” decided to make “The Imagine Project” a “global collaboration” — which, Hancock says with a laugh, turned into “the hardest record I’ve ever made.” He and Klein traipsed around the planet, working with an international array of artists — P!nk, Seal, Jeff Beck, India.Arie, Wayne Shorter, Chaka Khan, Anoushka Shankar, the Chieftains and African artists such as Toumani Diabete, Omou Sangare and the group Konono No. 1 — at studios in India, Ireland, the U.K., France and Los Angeles.
“You had to completely retool for each song,” Hancock recalls. “Normally you don’t have to do that. But I like the fact that everything on the record is different from everything else. It’s in keeping with what’s being practiced today by the general public, which is that people buy songs.
“In the past you had to buy whole albums; now you can buy song by song, so people buy what they want and put their own compilation in a way. But this is really like a compilation in a way, and I think it’s a good thing.”
It’s also a sign that Hancock is happy to embrace change — even as he’s being reminded how long he’s been around via special 70th birthday concerts during June in New York City and on Sept. 1 in Los Angeles. But Hancock says he’s not feeling his age at all.
“Oh, no — I still feel like I’m 25 or 30,” he says with another laugh. “It’s a great thing. People ask me, ‘Have you thought about retiring?’ I go, ‘What?! Why would I think about that?’ The only kind of retiring I want to do is when my hands get folded across my chest and they put me in a pine box. Hopefully that won’t be any time soon.”
Herbie Hancock performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18, at Chene Park Amphitheatre, 2600 E. Atwater at Chene, Detroit. Tickets are $55 and $35 pavilion, $22 lawn. Call 313-393-7128 or visit www.cheneparkdetroit.com.
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