By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When we catch up with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, he's in his Los Angeles studio doing what comes naturally. He's fiddling with computers.
"I'm working with some technology here, trying to improve on some of it, trying to adjust the software — adapting it for the tour," he says.
The tour he speaks of is one of three he has scheduled this fall. In the coming weeks, the revered and influential Chicagoan will be on the road with his current quartet, as well as playing more dates with orchestras (performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue").
This week, though, Hancock returns to the Chicago area on what's being billed as his "first-ever U.S. solo tour" — a surprising claim for the 71-year-old pianist whose career stretches back, past MTV hits and years with Miles Davis, to the 1950s.
"This is not a solo acoustic piano tour," he clarifies. "It's acoustic piano and synthesizer and my iMac. I'm integrating them all so there are more sounds I can produce in a solo context that go beyond the acoustic piano. I can build an accompaniment. I can alter, modify the sounds on the fly."
As a teen in Chicago, Hancock didn't necessarily think music was his destiny. A child prodigy in classical music, he played the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. But he never had a jazz teacher, and when he left Chicago it was to study electrical engineering at Iowa's Grinnell College.
But his penchant for techie tinkering and the ease with which he goes gaga for gadgets both shaped his career as a pioneering figure in post-bop jazz. An early missionary for the clavinet and electric piano, in the late '60s Hancock was one of the first jazz musicians to perform and record with synthesizers. A decade later, he was the first person I witnessed jamming out with a keytar.
On stage in Philadelphia earlier this month, Hancock lamented the recent death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, listing the various archaic Mac computers still littering his home.
"Technology fascinates me," he tells the Chicago Sun-Times. "I started toying with things like that when I was a boy in Chicago. . . . I've always loved science. With this technology now, I can do both. For me, it's fun and challenging at same time. Really, I have to focus and balance the personal enthusiasm I may have for the science with the idea of communicating life through music with an audience.
"Music uses sound to tell its story. It doesn't say what that sound has to be, doesn't say it has to be acoustic or electronic. It just wants out. What I'm able to do with all of this extends the possibilities of how I can orchestrate that story."
Turning toward jazz — and the future
Hancock's futurism has shaped his sound so much that when he was given the music award at this year's BET Honors, he was introduced as a player who has "changed the way we listen to music" and is "undoubtedly the master of innovating new sound."
Last year, Hancock was feted several times on the occasion of turning 70, including a special tribute concert hosted by Bill Cosby at Carnegie Hall. A West Coast tribute focused on Hancock's post-Davis group, often called Mwandishi, an early-'70s sextet (eventually septet) that consciously mixed electronic and acoustic instruments.
Christian McBride, bassist and co-director of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, said then, "I'm the biggest Weather Report fan, but I think Mwandishi was the most futuristic band of all time. With other bands, certain elements really give away their time in history. But Mwandishi was so far ahead of the pack . . . They were somehow able to balance the old traditions of jazz and the futuristic, electronic funk sound."
The aha moment that put Hancock on that forward-thinking jazz path, steering him away from engineering and classical music, occurred at Grinnell. He started learning to play jazz at 14 by listening to records, but at college he decided he wanted to perform.
"I wanted to put together a jazz concert and construct a big band," Hancock says. "There weren't a lot of jazz musicians at that small liberal arts school in Iowa, so I had to teach all the sections how to phrase so that it wouldn't be so wooden and mechanical. I tried to give them a sense, at least from my perspective in those early stages of my development as a jazz musician, you know, how they should approach it and play certain things. . . . I was 18, I was able to improvise by then." He pauses, chuckles. "I had more sense of what to do than any of them did."
Hancock spent a semester working with this group, and his schoolwork suffered. Had he not crammed at the last minute for his engineering finals, he says he would have flunked most of them. The struggle showed him the light.
"After the concert was over, I just remember going to my dorm room, looking in the mirror and saying to myself, 'Hey, Herbie, who are you trying to kid?' " he says. "The next day I changed my major. It wasn't an either-or situation, it was just a realization that music is what I must do and there was no plan B. I think I made the right decision. I hope people think so."
During summers home in Chicago, Hancock worked as a mail carrier during the day and jammed in local clubs at night. He reels off names of mentors and peers from that circa-1960 Chicago jazz scene — fellow pianists Willie Pickens and Chris Anderson ("I learned a lot from him") and Harold Mabern, sax player Eddie Harris, horn player Ira Sullivan — and venues, from the Gate of Horn to Robert's Lounge.
In addition to the general praise for Chicago's nurturing musical climate, Hancock when pressed gets down to what the city's scene specifically contributed to his arsenal.
"Especially for piano players, I'm certain, Chicago was an incredible place for the development of a keen sense of harmony, how harmony can work in music — between players and between your fingers," he says. "The way these guys were open to playing with each other, you just were able to pick up how it all could work much easier.
"We used to have jam sessions there with piano players, and we'd just take a ballad, for example, and each one would play one chorus and we'd harmonize the ballad. The next guy would keep playing it, and we'd harmonize a different way. We did it for fun and shared ideas. That was great. For harmonic development, Chicago was the place."
He took those skills to New York in 1961, where he joined Donald Byrd's group before becoming the pianist in trumpeter Davis' second acclaimed quintet. The jazz career that took off from there included a long string of solo albums spanning hits from the loping acoustic piano of "Cantaloupe Island" in 1964 to the MTV-embraced synth-funk of "Rockit" in 1983.
Even as Hancock passed the age of AARP eligibility, his music continued to impress. His 2007 album "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to Joni Mitchell's folk-pop songs, surprised everyone at the 2008 Grammys by beating the odds and winning album of the year — only the second jazz album to do so (the first: "Getz/Gilberto" in 1965).
Turning back toward Chicago — and his classical past
Today, however, Hancock says he's spending a lot of time thinking about the classical music he played as a boy in Chicago.
A combination of events pointed him back toward the symphony hall. First, Hancock says he came across some tapes someone had made of orchestrations to solo performances Hancock had given as part of a 2000-'01 duet tour with former Davis bandmate Wayne Shorter. If someone else could envision simple, synthesized and sequence orchestrations around his solo piano, then surely he could come up with his own, he says. The tinkering began.
Also, in 2009, Hancock began a joint series of performances with classical piano star Lang Lang (which stopped at Ravinia with the CSO). The recent "Rhapsody in Blue" revival began there, and Hancock says a door was opened. Last year, he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
At the time, Quincy Jones, who has known Hancock since both were grooming their talent on Chicago's South Side, said he was eager to see what more Hancock would bring to classical programming.
"He can do it all," Jones said.
Hancock returned to L.A.'s Disney Hall last month with the Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.
"I hadn't been playing classical since I was 7 years old in Chicago playing Mozart and Bach and Scarlatti. I did a Bartok piece once with Chick Corea years ago," he says. "But then I found there was actually interest from various orchestras in concerts. . . . I've got three more in December." He laughs. "So I've had to get my chops together!
"These things just happen. They present themselves. When I see a doorway opening or an opportunity or a direction that seems to be telling me, 'Examine this,' I follow it. It's the curious part of my nature. It's what's led me all the great places I've gotten to go."
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 29
Where: Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College Fine Arts Center, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville
Tickets: $85-$95, (630) 637-7469, northcentralcollege.edu/showtix
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.