By Don Heckman
Herbie Hancock’s storied career has been one of the most remarkable in jazz history. An influential pianist for more than four decades, moving freely from the most esoteric improvisational forms to the entertaining arenas of pop crossovers, he has been in the vanguard of expanding the horizons of jazz expressiveness. Last year, his album River: The Joni Letters, a transformative collection of the music of Joni Mitchell, became the first jazz-oriented album to win the Grammy Album of the Year award.
On Tuesday, June 22, the release of his newest audio and DVD album, The Imagine Project, opened far wider creative territories, illuminating Hancock’s fascination with the global universality with which music reaches from culture to culture. Recorded in locations reaching from India, Brazil, Colombia and Mali to Paris, London and Los Angeles, Hancock joins with an international list of music superstars that includes Dave Mathews, Anoushka Shankar, Jeff Beck, the Chieftains, John Legend, Seal, Pink, Wayne Shorter, Susan Tedeschi, Juanes, Derek Trucks, India Arie, Chaka Khan, K’Nan, James Morrison and Lisa Hannigan.
Last week, we sat in the sunlit patio of Hancock’s home in the Hollywood hills, as he described some of the unusual, often humorous adventures of creating an album in worldwide locations.
DH: Herbie, as I understand it, the concept for The Imagine Project actually began to materialize while you already were in a far corner of the world.
HH: It was an interesting piece of serendipity, or synchronicity. When I was first putting the concept for the record together and pulled Larry Klein in as the primary producer, and we were just laying the foundation of it down, the decision was made that it would be great to go to various countries to get the flavor of the culture. You get the taste of the food, the atmosphere, the people. And if we’re really going to honor various cultures, it makes sense to be there. And it turned out that I was already scheduled to go to India with Martin Luther King III as a partnership between the Thelonious Monk Institute and the State Department with the student band from the Monk Institute to represent America’s culture in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to travel to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent methods.
DH: But doing the album wasn’t actually a scheduled part of that trip?
HH: No, but I thought, “Hmm, I got this trip coming up to India.” But it was coming up right away, like in about ten days or a couple of weeks. And we hadn’t really decided on songs or anything. We hadn’t gotten that far. But we decided to see if there was a day off where we might be able to record in India. Then Larry thought about this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke with references to music. And I liked it. You know, It’s deep.
DH: A German poem, that Larry Klein adapted into a piece called “The Song Goes On” to record in India. That’s getting global pretty fast, I’d say.
HH: Right. But it gets better. What we initially saw was the English version. Now what’s funny is that, you know, these ideas are forming as we’re going along. First there was the idea of doing it in India. And conceptually doing it in Hindi. But we didn’t actually implement that until we were in the studio. There was a guy there that actually did a translation from the English into Hindi, using the Erdu written language. Then we discovered that Erdu uses the same written characters that are read in Arabic.
DH: Ah, the international plot thickens.
HH: Right, and even more. We were looking for a singer with a warm, round tone, and Larry found an Indian singer named K.S. Chithra, and she agreed to do it. So she gets to the studio, she looks at the Erdu lyrics, and we come to find out she’s from South India, where they speak Tamil. They don’t speak Hindi. [Laughter]. So the decision was made to do a phonetic translation of the Erdu phonetically using Roman characters of English, because English is the common language in India. And she could read the characters phonetically the way we do.
DH: But Wayne Shorter’s on that track, too, and he wasn’t in India with you.
HH: Nope. That happened later. He happened to come over one day for a completely different purpose. But he had his horn with him. And so I asked him, “Do you have a minute to listen to something, and see if you feel comfortable about playing on it.” I was actually thinking about the song, “Don’t Give Up.” So he listened to some of it, but I could see in his face it wasn’t really right for where his head was at the moment. So anyway we wound up instead just starting to play ‘The Song Goes On.’ Just a few bars went by. And he stopped us. He said, “Okay, okay. Let’s go.” And he goes in the booth, we press the record button, and he’s listening to the track, first time, and just responded. One take. That’s what you hear on the record. It doesn’t get better than that. He acts like he was there in the room as part of the orchestration of the moment.” So we got Wayne Shorter involved, we got German involved, we got English, we got ancient Roman and we got Erdu and we got Hindi.
DH: With a slight connection with Arabic, too.
HH: Right. All that involved in one piece. And with all that going on, everything pointed toward the fact that this was the right direction to go in.
DH: Having realized that, did you then make a grand plan of what the rest of the album was going to be? Or did you just take things one step at a time?
HH: Well, we had decided to take advantage of that one opportunity and we were now in a different stage of the project. You gotta start somewhere. Like Miles said to Gil Evans when they were planning that album, Miles Ahead + 19. Gil was scratching his head and he said, ‘Well, Miles, what should I do?’ And Miles said ‘Start it off!’
DH: Count on Miles to put it succinctly.
HH: Yeah, so to speak. [Laughter] Anyhow, we came back to the States and then we started figuring out some other cultural combinations. One idea was I wanted to have Africa involved. For several reasons. Not just because of my own personal heritage, but because that continent is the ancestral home of humanity. That’s the common bond between all human beings on the planet. And so we were looking into that. Larry did some research and found out that there was new music happening in Mali, where they’re being influenced by the blues. And by rhythm ‘n’ blues from here. It’s gone back there and creating a new kind of hybrid music.
DH: And on John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which opens the album, you bring some of those elements together, with a line-up that includes Mali’s Oumou Sangare, India Arie, Pink and Seal.
HH: Right. And Jeff Beck, too. The interesting thing about the song “Imagine” is that the intro, which opens the whole record, came way after the fact. What happened was Pink and Seal went into the studio to do “Don’t Give Up” and they both were excited about what was happening, and the concept behind the record. But they both were kind of sad that they were playing on top of a track that I was already on. They had both kind of expected that they would be able to record with me. So we came up with the idea, “Hey, why don’t we make an intro for “Imagine?” And just do it in the studio that way. Which we did.
DH: What about Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’?” That’s another interesting combination, with the Chieftains, Lisa Hannigan and Toumani Diabate, also from Mali.
HH: I got this hare-brained idea that we could put some kind of African foundation with some Celtic music. Actually, it wasn’t because I knew in advance it would work. It was because it was the farthest thing I could think of from African music. ‘Cause I was looking for something that would be the most far-fetched, at least to a lot of Western ears. Or a lot of American ears. So I went on iTunes to see if I could find something. So I found one of those world beat radio stations, one that was particularly dedicated to Celtic music. I’m listening to different things, and all of a sudden I hear one section in one of the pieces, and I said, “Wait a minute. Am I crazy, but I think this can work.” So I glued something together with an African piece. It didn’t fit perfectly, because the tempo didn’t match, but it was close enough where Larry Klein came in the next day and I showed him what I was messing with. And he said, “I hear it! I think this can work.”
DH: There actually is a kind of rhythmic correlation between Celtic and some kinds of African music, isn’t there? Especially in the 6/8 patterns?
HH: Right. And that’s when we decided we were going to try it. It was Larry’s idea to add the Chieftains, if they’d be interested. What I didn’t know, until I talked to Paddy Moloney, the leader of the Chieftains, was that they’d done a lot of things with various cultures. With Asia, with Japan, with Spain. And he told me there was a definite cultural link between the folk music of certain of those areas – that they have the same roots.
DH: You actually began to assemble that track in Paris, though, didn’t you?
HH: We were there for three days working on some other songs, including “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus” with the African group Tinariwen. But Larry did a scratch track for “The Times They Are a-Changin” and sent it to Paddy, the day before we were flying to Dublin. When we got there, Paddy was freaked out. Because he had originally heard just the scratch track that Larry had done, and then when he heard the real one that we were going to use, he didn’t know what to do. He was kind of shook up. So I come to the studio and I say to Larry, “Play it again. Play the piano track.” And he did that, and Paddy was fine. So we added the bass and the drums, and now we had a kind of patterny thing going. I mean [guitarist] Lionel Loueke had added some variations, but it didn’t throw Paddy off. So then we recorded on top of that, When we got the take that we thought we wanted, we brought in the Chieftains. And right off the bat it went perfectly. I went, “whew!” And Paddy went, “Oh, I see!” The other thing that he did is, at the end of the vocal on “The Times They Are a-Changing,” he played a little kind of Celtic melody. I don’t know if Paddy wrote that, or if it’s a folk melody. But I remember when he played it, I had tears in my eyes. It was so pretty. Every time I heard that melody, it would just touch me. Actually, part of my heritage is Irish, and I was wondering, “could it be reaching into my own Irish roots?” Whatever! I don’t know.
DH: But isn’t that the whole point of the recording?
HH: Right. Exactly.
DH: What about some of the other tunes? “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s song.
HH: This was around the end of the project. We didn’t have time to fly into London. We made a kind of basic track, because I had never met James and I didn’t know what he would be comfortable with. I didn’t want to throw any curves at him. So we made a fairly simple kind of track for him to sing over and we sent that over the Internet. And because of the time difference, they got it the next morning. It was evening for us. So he was able to record that day. And they were able to send it back.
DH: Doesn’t Morrison sort of represent what’s going on here, too? Because when you hear him talk, he has a sort of sweet, high voice, with a strong English accent. And then he starts to sing…
HH. And it’s like he’s from Detroit!
DH: [Laughing] Exactly.
HH: That’s a hybrid right there.
DH: Serious hybrid.
HH: Right, but we had to do some work on that track. James did a great job. And I thought it worked with the basic track that we had put down. Then Larry listened to it and he said, “I think you should do another track.” And I said, “Oh.” Because I had a couple of little twists and turns in the rhythm. Nothing to throw him. But I just… I had to do something. And Larry said, “I don’t think you need to have those.” Larry actually had another idea that he got from something I had played. And, you see, Larry’ll say something, and I trust his judgment now. If he has an idea, there’s something there, and I have to find it. We tried a few takes and we were on to something. And finally it started to kick in, and it works. I can’t even divine or describe how it works. But it makes James’ singing have another dimension. The end of that piece, by the way – because the words say “A change is going to come” — I wanted it to evolve into something more toward the future. I mean that piece was written during the civil rights movement. Somebody said it was the last piece that Sam Cooke recorded, and the last piece that he wrote before he was killed. And it was inspired by Bob Dylan. So there’s another linkage.
DH: This album is not really just about music, is it?
HH: It’s an important message about the family of man. That we are all the same people. We need to build a future where we work together. And it takes our willingness to be open to cultures outside of our own, and embrace those cultures. Because guess what? Those are our cultures. We’re Americans, we’re immigrants. Those are our cultures. They’re not foreign. They’re where we came from.
DH: But this is also not a Herbie Hancock record, at least not as a soloist.
HH: Right. I’ve made Herbie Hancock records already. I don’t feel I have to do that any more. It’s not about me, it’s about we. But I could say that it’s my vision. So in that sense I connected the pieces.
DH: What’s the bounce back for you, when you’re doing something else? What do you take away from this when you are doing a strictly Herbie Hancock performance?
HH: Interestingly enough — in a lot of cases – the pieces have a very rudimentary harmonic foundation, . And you know me, I like to re-harmonize. But the chord structures are real simple, like folk music. In some cases there are exotic elements like African rhythmic things going on and all that. And just folk things too. This Celtic thing sounds to me in essence like the root of some American folk music. Blue grass and so forth. Because of all this, I learned new ways of playing while I’ve been doing this record. And so I’ve added to my experience of improvisation. And I had to pull it out of myself. I had to do it the way an actor has to do a part in a movie. You gotta find it in yourself. Maybe it’s that commonality that you have with the music of another culture. Because it all comes from the human spirit. We all have babies, and we all have spouses and partners. I mean we’re more similar than we are different. It’s in each of us, even though it’s not always that easy to find.
DH: You know the old definition of country music. It’s three chords and the truth.
HH: [laughter] That is valid. The truth is that’s the key, right there. But I’m really fortunate in that I didn’t have any doubt that I could find it. It didn’t have anything to do with ego. I believe we have infinite capacity. But it was a challenge, and I just had to find solutions. And I learned. I didn’t try to force it into bebop, or force it into any of those more natural choices that I might make. That would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have fit.
DH: You’re saying The Imagine Project represents another part of you.
HH Right, right, right. So that’s what I can take away. A broader palette that I can choose from.
DH: Sounds like the first step toward the next album. Thanks, Herbie.
Photos by Faith Frenz