After nearly 40 years of composing, performing and recording masterpieces of the American-music canon, jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock is unquestionably a singular icon, a living legend.
Hancock was a pianist for five years in one of the great jazz ensembles of all time — the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s. He emerged post-Miles to be a groundbreaking force in ’70s fusion. More than a decade later, Hancock has continued to explore uncharted territory in funk, soul, African and, most recently, electronic music.
But what defines greatness?
Perhaps we can look to musical achievement — the sophistication, cleverness and emotional impact a composer brings to a listener. Maybe widespread acclaim is the sole maker of giants — the fame gained through skill, hard work and sheer grit.
Did the artist precipitate a cultural shift, or perhaps embody shifting movements? Did the artist’s integrity, his disregard of others’ demands, the clarity of his vision and artistic purpose, bring about his iconic stature?
Hard to say, perhaps — but Hancock suggests there’s more to greatness when he talks about Miles Davis. There’s a sense of awe in his voice, as if Davis embodies things still left unexplained. Though it’s been 30 years since Hancock worked with the Dark Prince, he remains transfixed by Davis’ genius.
Last summer, Hancock — along with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Michael Brecker — celebrated the 75th birthday of Miles Davis, along with that of John Coltrane, by launching an international tour. The trio’s gift is a truly innovative approach to the Davis/Coltrane catalogue.
Hancock’s concern — aside from chord structures, arrangements and instrumentation — was in honoring the spirit of Coltrane and Davis.
“My greatest challenge was to have the courage to trust my instincts and not be so concerned about doing something that would gather applause [but rather] concentrate more on the shaping of the music,” Hancock says about last summer’s tour, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles home.
“When Miles would play, I could hear a depth in every solo,” he continues. “Whether people applauded him because he was Miles Davis or because they grasped that depth is hard to say. But he didn’t kowtow to just entertaining people. He wanted to create a musical environment that would be something we had not experienced before.
“Miles always said he paid us to come up with new things. He said not to worry about mistakes. ‘If things don’t work out,’ he’d say, ‘don’t worry about that. As long as you’re working on something new, that’s what I want.’ That was his directive. That’s not an easy thing to do. You don’t find that kind of integrity in music these days. Not often. It’s very difficult to find.”
Given Hancock’s known enthusiasm for current music, it’s interesting to hear him raise this issue. One of his hallmarks has been embracing fresh trends, especially new technologies. Nevertheless, he expresses a longing to witness new, courageous movements toward the kind of depth he and Miles achieved together.
Problem is, Hancock says, most music nowadays is considered merely entertainment, a surface-level enterprise that cannot transform — and cannot better — the listener.
“There’s certainly a place for entertainment,” he adds. “But I know that’s not all music can be. For music to be solely entertainment would be a disservice to humankind. We’d miss part of our own creative expression.
“It occurs to me that very often things that are only entertaining only scratch the surface of our being; they are usually forgotten. You may remember you were entertained, but it wasn’t anything that grabbed you deep inside. I’ve always wanted, like many others, [for] my performances to awaken something inside the audience, so they feel better about themselves.”
Hancock seeks the spiritual center of music, pinpointing what drives him to continue innovating and creating. Jazz is the vehicle that takes him there.
He notes the parallels between the craft of jazz — the discipline, the hard work of expressing a discrete moment in time — and American Buddhism, the religion Hancock and other musical craftsmen like saxophonist Wayne Shorter (also a veteran of the Miles Davis Quintet) have practiced for the past 30 years.
“A lot of how we feel about music was inspired and supported by Buddhism,” Hancock says.
“I was talking to a guy who writes books and does seminars for SGI [Soka Gakkai International], the Buddhism we practice,” he continues. “I told him about the virtues of jazz. He said all the things I mentioned are at the core of Buddhism. Then he suggested Buddhism is the jazz of religion, which makes a lot of sense. Jazz is very humanitarian. It’s about sharing rather than competing. It requires a lot of trust, a lot of courage. It welcomes and encourages [the] exploration and expression of being in a moment. And it welcomes and encourages teamwork. There are lots of parallels between the two.”
Hancock suggests that beyond notoriety, artistic acumen and the limitations of the music itself lies the real source of greatness, the making of a legend: a respectful search for the unknown.
And this search gives Hancock hope for the future of jazz.
“This is absolutely the kind of thing that keeps me going,” he muses. “This drive comes from life itself … the appreciation and respect for life and the qualities of human life. The older I get, the broader my vision becomes. My whole vista is a lot broader than it used to be.
“There are people out here who are looking into the future of jazz and creativity and reexamining all the conventional aspects of jazz in order to work toward creating a more open approach to expression that can really lead us into the music of the 21st century. In that regard, [jazz] looks very healthy. People are still coming to concerts and hearing things they haven’t heard before. It touches them in a place that hasn’t been touched before. They can’t explain it ,and they don’t know why they feel this way.
“To them, it’s awesome,” Hancock notes. “To me, that means there’s something really going on.”