The Music Plays On — Herbie Hancock

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There are artists who have long and storied careers. There are just a handful of artists, however, that, as their careers mature, their fluidity between styles deepens and expands over time. Herbie Hancock is one of those select few.

Part of the reason he was able to do this at all has a lot to do with how his initial love of music was fostered and developed. Herbie Hancock was born and raised in Chicago and received a thorough education in the fundamentals of piano playing. He was quickly considered a prodigy and played the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto №26 at the age of eleven with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Throughout his teens, he further developed his ear and musical training, but did not have a teacher in jazz. One of his biggest influences were recordings by the vocal group the Hi-Lo’s. Hancock writes,

“…by the time I actually heard the Hi-Lo’s, I started picking that stuff out; my ear was happening. I could hear stuff and that’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings — like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child — just being able to do that. I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept…he and Bill Evans, and Ravel and Gil Evans, finally. You know, that’s where it came from.”

One of the great forgotten vocal groups of the 50’s, The Hi-Lo’s 1958 album, And All That Jazz, is one of the greatest arranged jazz albums of all time and has personally been a favorite of mine since I can remember.

At the age of twenty, Hancock started studying jazz piano with Chris Anderson, who Hancock greatly admired.

“Chris’ music has affected the core of my music very deeply. After hearing him play just once, I begged him to let me study with him. Chris Anderson is a master of harmony and sensitivity. I shall be forever indebted to him and his very special gift.”

Anderson’s incredible use of harmony is very apparent in the beautiful rendition of Love Letters.

Just two years later, in 1962, Herbie Hancock recorded his first album for Blue Note Records, Takin’ Off. The first track, Watermelon Man, is iconic.

This album caught the attention of Miles Davis, who was assembling his next band. Hancock became a member of Davis’ next great quintet while still recording sessions as a leader for Blue Note. This Second Great Quintet of Miles Davis recorded classic albums, including Miles Smiles and Miles in the Sky but probably the most highly regarded album from this time is their live album, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965.

However, 1965 also saw the release of one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Hancock’s Maiden Voyage.

A year later, in 1966, Hancock composed his first of many great film scores, Antonioni’s Blowup. I absolutely love this soundtrack!

In 1969 Hancock wrote the soundtrack to Bill Cosby animated television show, Hey Hey Hey It’s Fat Albert and this music would be made into the awesome R&B/Jazz album, Fat Albert Rotunda.

In 1973, Hancock’s newly formed band The Headhunters crossed over into the pop world with their eponymous hit album. It continues to be an incredibly influence on not only the jazz world, but the worlds of funk, soul, and hip-hop.

Hancock, always remaining true to his innate artistry and desire to remain current, even recorded jazz infused disco albums that were good! His fascination with the Vocoder, and early voice synthesizer, added a very cool and unique quality to these albums. The album Sunlight from 1978 is a great album from this period.

The 1980’s saw Hancock have a pop hit with Rockit from his 1983 album, Future Shock. Rockit is considered the first jazz hip-hop song and became a world-wide hit for breakdancers. It was also the first mainstream hit that features scratching. Even the video for Mtv is considered revolutionary.

The 1990’s saw a return to his roots with a Miles Davies tribute album, Tribute to Miles, and his 1997 duet album with Wayne Shorter, 1+1, is fantastic, with the song Aung San Suu Kyi winning the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition that year.

Hancock, a longtime fan of Joni Mitchell released a tribute album to her in 2007 titled, River: The Joni Letters. It won the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy Award as well as a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. The song Both Sides Now was nominated for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo. It was only the second time in history that a jazz album had both those Grammys.

Hancock’s last studio album was in 2010, The Imagine Project.

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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