Herbie Hancock – Restless Explorer

When asked to describe jazz, acclaimed saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter replied: “For me jazz means I dare you.”
I dare you—simple, pointed, and straightforward; the courage to follow one’s imagination wherever it may lead; to explore, discover, and develop your own identity. No walls. No boundaries.

Shorter’s longtime friend and musical colleague Herbie Hancock has accepted the challenge that “I dare you” presents for virtually his entire career. Now, 79, the legendary jazz genre-masher, pianist/keyboardist/composer, and collaborator has played a pivotal role in contemporary music, be it within an acoustic jazz framework or in electronic, R&B, and funk environments.

Considered a prodigy, Herbie started playing piano at the age of seven and by the age of eleven was performing Mozart piano concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1961 trumpeter Donald Byrd asked him to join his group, and shortly thereafter, esteemed Blue Note Records offered him a contract.

His debut solo album Takin’ Off provided a terrific launch. Hip, sophisticated, with cool funk elements, the session would yield the hit song “Watermelon Man” which became a signature piece and is still a jazz standard.

As Hancock’s star began to rise Miles Davis came calling in 1963 with an invitation to join his band. That seminal second quintet also comprising Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, would carve a defining post-bop niche during the next five years. During this time, Herbie’s skills as a composer blossomed with enthralling compositions like “Maiden Voyage, ” “Cantaloupe Island,” and the lovely “Speak Like a Child.” After leaving Miles in 1968, Hancock would head out on an electric funk and jazz-rock fusion path. By the early 1970s he added synthesizer to his fuzz-wah pedaled electric piano and clavinet and the recordings became more atmospheric showcasing intricate rhythms and complex structures. It was all wildly exciting as the band soared to popularity with the eponymous album The Headhunters and it’s crossover smash hit “Chameleon.”

During the 1980’s Herbie connected with a younger, hip-hop crowd by releasing the pulsating, scratch-driven instrumental MTV hit “Rockit.” At the same time, he cultivated an exciting collaboration with Gambian kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso; wrote film scores like the Academy Award winning soundtrack for ‘Round Midnight; and played festivals with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, George Benson, and many others.

All the while he’s never forsaken acoustic jazz. A favourite album of mine is River: The Joni Letters, a fascinating collection of jazz renderings of Joni Mitchell compositions released in 2007 on which Herbie collaborates with a wide-ranging group of vocalists from Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Luciana Souza. It not only won a Grammy. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Actually, Herbie has a cache of Grammy Awards—14 at last count. And with over 50 album releases and a long list of accomplishments to his credit, he’s proven to be one of the greatest innovators and pioneering spirits not only in jazz, but music in general. No matter what the challenges or criticisms, he’s been unwavering in his desire to push forward and explore new terrain. He told an interviewer recently, “It was Miles [Davis] who showed me that it was cool to be open to all music. Joy comes from being open.”

Joy also comes from experiencing Herbie Hancock’s current band: Lionel Loueke guitar/vocals, Terrance Martin sax/keyboards, James Genus bass, and Vinny Colaiuta drums. They make a rare appearance during the Jazz Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on June 29.

Go see them.

I dare you!

John Orysik,
Co-founder, Media Director Emeritus