An undisputed jazz legend, Herbie Hancock has evolved to stay current in every project he approaches.
From his early days playing in the Miles Davis Quintet in a trad jazz set up alongside jazz titans Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter, to his jazz-funk albums of the ‘70s with Headhunters, there’s little jazz music that isn’t influenced in some way by Herbie’s playing.
Herbie can play. Herbie can compose. And, at the age of 80, he remains as relevant as ever. His next album is set to be produced by Terrace Martin and feature a host of stars at the peak of their powers, including Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and Snoop Dogg to name but a few. In this blog, we take a look at how Herbie has moved with the times to consistently stay ahead of the curve and develop such a dedicated following.
Herbie Hancock is the cover star of our grade 6 piano book.
Long before he pioneered electro funk and jazz fusion with his seminal 1973 album, 'Headhunters', Herbie started his career as a jazz pianist who, much like Nina Simone, emerged from a classical education to become a figurehead of the contemporary music scene. His debut album spawned the jazz standard 'Watmermelon Man', a 16 bar blues that has recently been covered by Poppy Ajudha for the Blue Note: Reimagined series, and gained the attention of Miles Davis.
It was with the Miles Davis Quintet that Hancock's star truly began to rise. He was not only an integral member of one of the sharpest jazz groups of the time, but also a versatile and imaginative sideman who appeared on a number of records with different artists on the Blue Note label.
In 1964 he penned perhaps his most famous composition, ‘Cantaloupe Island’, which can be found on our grade 6 piano syllabus. It's a fairly simple tune that pivots around three chords in a 16 bar structure. The melody is straightforward enough but it's distinctly memorable, oozing cool and nonchalance. However, this doesn't mean this tune falls into the category of 'background' or 'lounge music'. The solo that Herbie takes, and that we've transcribed for our grade book, combines blues ornamentation with bebop phrasing to illuminate all the different shades of colour evident in the harmony, meaning the piece's simple melody is explored and reimagined in a number of ways.
As is so often the case with jazz music, a simple melody and chord sequence is only the starting point. The "head" or main melody is a springboard for the musicians to leap off from, prompting and encouraging them to improvise, express themselves, and, ultimately, have fun!
Just take a look at this breathtaking performance from Liver Under the Sky in 1991. There are only four musicians onstage: Wayne Shorter of Weather Report fame, Omar Hakim, who played with everyone from David Bowie to Madonna, Stanley Clarke, and, of course, Herbie himself. Yet, they give a performance that is so full of energy, verve, and creativity there is no need for an impressive lights show, back up dancers, or moshing. Herbie teases the crowd as he plays around with the main riff before settling into a groove that will stay rock solid for the rest of the performance. The technical ability on show combined with these four musicians' incredible nous for improvisation makes it an unforgettable watch.
Fun, right? The energy that the four are creating onstage can be traced through Herbie's outlook years later. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Herbie discussed what the "spirit of jazz" means to him:
You know, the most important thing is the spirit of jazz — which is about freedom, about improvisation, about courage. I mean the courage to play something that you haven’t played before, to create something on the spot. And it’s also about sharing, because onstage we don’t compete with each other. Each of us expresses ourselves from our own being, and no two people are alike, so the idea of being judgmental is not on the table.
Jazz heavily influences a lot of hip hop, and over the past 10 years or so it seems that many rappers are acknowledging how so much of the music created today has its roots in jazz. Kendrick Lamar's seminal album 'To Pimp A Butterfly', released in 2015, featured jazz musicians such as Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Robert Glasper, and included a huge amount of jazz idiom. This wasn't simply in the form of the occasional sample or throwback to an old Blue Note record - jazz was very much front and centre, with Herbie's influence permeating every corner of Lamar's almost revolutionary sound.
Although he's working on his first solo album for a while, Herbie is a mentor and incredibly well-respected figure in the music community at the moment. One musician he's taken under his wing is the virtuosic Jacob Collier, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of harmony marks him out as one of the most exciting artists in generations. Definitely check out his music if you get a chance! In the meantime, check out this interesting discussion of music theory explain over five different levels of difficulty featuring both Jacob and Herbie.