Herbie's Love Bug

Herbie Hancock embraces bebop, hip hop, drum 'n' bass, jazz--and all humanity

The résumé is ridiculous--an endless scroll of accolades and auspicious moments that make you half suspect that Herbie Hancock has been doctored into musical history like Zelig or Forrest Gump. There's Herbie at age 11, playing Mozart's D Minor Piano Concerto as the featured performer with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There he is again, 50 years later, jamming with the underground drum 'n' bass DJ known as A Guy Called Gerald on a track for Hancock's Future 2 Future CD. Punch up the '60s and Hancock's fingers are prancing across the ivories behind Miles Davis in the most renowned bebop-oriented jazz ensemble of that decade. Jump to the '70s and catch the infectious, disco-fied funk of "Chameleon," a 15-minute suite that propelled Hancock's Head Hunters into becoming the largest-selling jazz record of all time. Glide into the '80s and hear Herbie herald the dawn of hip hop and MTV via the keyboard vamps and turntable scratches of "Rockit," and see a visually splendid Godley and Creme video for it that still feels fresh 19 years later.

You know "Watermelon Man," that catchy tune with the hiccupy percussion that put Mongo Santamaria on the map nearly 40 years ago? Hancock wrote it. He also produced Wynton Marsalis's debut CD in 1980 and won an Oscar in 1987 for his Round Midnight film score, after writing soundtracks to projects as diverse as Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, Michael Winner's vigilante classic Death Wish, and Bill Cosby's television show Fat Albert. He's garnered eight Grammys thus far, most recently for his ambitious 1998 tribute Gershwin's World.

If anything, Hancock has been even more of a peripatetic presence since turning 60 in April of the new century--and not just because channel surfers invariably stumble across him hawking Bose speakers on late-night infomercials. In September of last year, he released Future 2 Future, a highly textured, seamlessly impressionistic mix of drum 'n' bass, hip hop, and spacey fusion jazz, produced by ex-Material founder Bill Laswell. This June he dropped Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (Verve), teaming up with high-profile Verve label mates Roy Hargrove and Michael Brecker on drastically rearranged renditions of old Miles Davis and John Coltrane tunes, plus original compositions inspired by the late icons. And on November 5, the four-CD Herbie Hancock Box went on sale. It remasters the gamut of his most popular work, from Debussy-inflected bop tone poems like "Maiden Voyage" and "Dolphin Dance" from early in his career, to mainstays from his days with Miles, such as "Milestones" and "'Round Midnight," to dance fare like "Chameleon" and "Rockit."

Given his prolific output and increasing penchant for fusing and rearranging various tunes from his vast catalog, it's impossible to predict exactly how Hancock's gig will unfold Friday, November 8 at the Ted Mann auditorium. When I saw him with Hargrove, Brecker, and the rest of the Directions in Music ensemble at New York's Carnegie Hall in June, he naturally gravitated toward the post-bop, mainstream style he minted with Miles. His graceful yet robust Oscar Peterson-like arpeggios simultaneously enlivened and fattened the rhythm. Quieter pieces signaled his longstanding admiration for the harmonic sophistication of Bill Evans. But whatever the tempo and timbre, Hancock's melodic acuity as both soloist and sideman reminded me of his rare ability to both please the casual fan and stimulate the cognoscenti.

As in New York, Friday's concert will be a strictly acoustic affair. But this is a younger quartet, more naturally apt to embrace the postmodern elements of Hancock's sensibility. Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, like saxophonist Gary Thomas, served time in the intrepid M-Base artistic collective out of Brooklyn in the '70s and '80s. Bassist Scott Colley is a rising star who last came to town as part of Jason Moran's trio at the Walker.

"Different players create different improvisations," Hancock said last month, calling from New York. "I've got a new arrangement of 'Dolphin Dance,' and we'll do an arrangement of [Wayne Shorter's classic] 'Footprints' mixed with 'Kebero' from Future 2 Future." The latter song was originally remixed by house music founder Carl Craig, with R&B vocalist Donell Jones and the late TLC member Lisa Lopes.

But Hancock, who converted to Buddhism about 30 years ago, is most enthusiastic about a sea change in his attitude toward music. "Until five years ago, I defined myself as a musician instead of as a human being. That's good because music serves a function and purpose for humanity. It changes the music because it gets me beyond the confines of the academic rules and helps me feel more assured about submitting myself to the intuitive, the artistic, the nonverbal. This is a major development, because thinking like a musician, instead of a human being, put me in a box."

Ah, we knew something was holding him back.

 
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