Category Archives: Herbie Hancock

For Herbie Hancock’s 77th Birthday, A “Director’s Cut” DownBeat Feature from 2003 and an interview with the Barnes & Noble Review From 2014

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Herbie Hancock, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the “director’s cut” of a DownBeat cover piece I had the opportunity to write about HH in 2003, and the proceedings of an interview he did with me on the occasion of the publication of Breaking The Rules for the Barnes & Noble Review ‘zine, in which he states: “Jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz.”

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Herbie Hancock DB Cover Story, 2003

The opening sequence of Herbie Hancock’s new DVD, Future-2-Future, Live, follows Hancock, elegantly casual in a custom-tailored black suit, as he enters stage left at the Los Angeles Knitting Factory. Hancock bows, addresses a Korg Karma Roland MK-80 keyboard plugged into an Apple PowerBook computer, and triggers a series of ascending and descending swoops of varying duration. Against a backdrop of swirling rave images, bassist Matthew Garrison bows complementary tones, D.J. Disk interpolates whispery swatches of color, keyboardist Darrell Diaz plucks soft chords, drummer Teri Lyne Carrington elicits rubato, bell-like beats from her cymbals.

Then Hancock takes the microphone in his right hand. “Simply put, knowledge is the past,” he says in a calm, deliberate voice. “It is…” — he smiles, and sweeps his left hand across the keyboard — “…technology.” He pauses, cues an oscillating wash of sound, and continues, stretching out the words: “Wisdom is the future. It is philosophy. It is people’s hearts that move the age. While knowledge may provide a useful point of reference, it cannot become a force to guide the future. By contrast, wisdom captivates people’s hearts and has the power to open a new age. Wisdom is the key to understanding the age, creating the time.”

Concluding the invocation, from a text by his spiritual guide, Daiseku Ikeda, Hancock sustains the tone poem, setting up a Carrington chant, which is sampled polyphonically and to which she creates a complementary drumbeat on her electronic pads. Hancock shifts, sits at the acoustic piano, states the melody of “Kebero,” and launches a pithy, majestic solo, constantly developing the theme and sustaining a complex rhythmic dialogue with his drummer, deploying a precisely calibrated array of attacks to treat the piano simultaneously as both an orchestral harmonic instrument and a drum. Carrington’s sampled chant is a break chorus that paves the way for trumpeter Wallace Roney, who bobs and weaves through the rhythm with long combinations that sum up the harmonic material, not stopping until Hancock returns to the Korg with a declarative chord that winds up the piece.

Through the ebb and flow of the remaining 90 minutes of Future-2-Future Live, Hancock improvises through his entire timeline, bouncing off the ensemble to navigate seamlessly through electronic and acoustic environments with a holistic sensibility that he has not displayed on previous recordings. On “This Is D.J. Disk,” a call-and-response with the turntablist, Hancock uncorks a solo that evokes Inventions and Dimensions, his 1963 encounter with bassist Paul Chambers and two Afro-Latin percussionists. He creates a completely reconfigured 20-minute suite of “Dolphin Dance,” originally recorded in 1965 on Maiden Voyage, and one of several dozen Hancock compositions that stand among the sublime achievements of late 20th century jazz. He presents 21st century versions of “Hornets,” a Techno epic originally recorded in 1973 by the groove-based experimental coop Mwandishi on the aforementioned Sextant, and “Butterfly,” a soulful melody from Hancock’s late ’70s fusion period. On the encore, a balls-out “Chameleon,” he comps wickedly under an inspired Kurzweil solo by Darrell Diaz, then takes a thematic counterstatement on the Korg and an orchestral variation on acoustic piano.

Much of the repertoire comprises Hancock’s arrangements of material from his self-released studio CD, Future-2-Future [Transparent], refined over the band’s 50 or so dates during 2001-02. “We committed ourselves to Future-2-Future from an artist development point of view, going on the road and playing smaller clubs to younger audiences, almost as if Herbie was a new artist,” explains his manager, David Passick. On the CD, producer Bill Laswell situated Hancock in the Electro-Hiphop-Ambient-Techno dancefloor environment that he foreshadowed thirty years ago on such albums as Sextant — specifically the piece “Nobu,” built on scratch-like beats — and Dedication, and that he helped to launch in the ‘80s on Future Shock and Perfect Machine. Laswell collects beats from Detroit Techno producer Carl Craig, Afro-Brit drum-bass avatar Gerald Simpson, DJ Rob Swift, Grandmixer DXT, and tabla-percussionist Karsh Kale, deploys the resonant voices of Chaka Khan, Gigi, and Imani Uzuri, and calls on old master instrumentalists Wayne Shorter and Jack deJohnette – and a sampled drum track laid down by Tony Williams not long before his death – to impart gravitas and depth.

“Bill thought it would be interesting if I worked with people who are creating this kind of music who were influenced by records I did when I was their age,” Hancock says. “What would be the future-to-future end product? Bill likes to prepare fragments — some harmonic material or drums or drum-and-bass — before he meets me. Stimulating things. On our past albums, I would evaluate what he prepared, decide what to do, and then go back in the studio and shape it into my record by adding and changing things. The technology has evolved, and when I heard his material I was in the studio in front of a keyboard with a ‘Record’ light on. Bill wanted my immediate first reaction, my my gut-level, right-brain response. I’m listening to something; I don’t know where it’s going or where it starts, or anything.”

“When we talk about Electronica, we’re speaking about programming, not playing as a jazz musician would,” says Laswell, reinforcing the point. ” But Herbie thinks in terms of playing and programming simultaneously. He can imagine a sequence as a repetition, not something that’s reproduced electronically, but a spontaneously played musical part. He hears patterns, and he thinks in terms of structures — very advanced harmonic structures.”

“I’ve played with a lot of great musicians,” says Roney. “Sometimes with them, we’re playing, it’s great, we’re having a good time. But with Herbie, from the first chord, the first run, my jaw would drop. You never knew what you were going to hear next and it always took your breath away. Every time.”

“In a way, improvising is like composing,” Hancock says. “I am interested in making it more spontaneous and less intellectual, getting the thinking brain out of the way and letting the music flow through. The structure or balance will inherently reveal itself as a natural consequence. Now, the Mwandishi band played very spontaneous music, and the Future-2-Future band comes from a perspective very similar to when I did Crossings and Sextant. But in the early ’70s it was more raw, whereas now it’s reached some kind of maturity. The music was unrefined, like laying your guts out, letting it all hang out, which a young person may do. Today I’m letting it all hang out, but there’s a sense of the importance of responsibility and other things you learn as you get older.

“Except on rare occasions, I haven’t practiced scales and exercises, the way we normally think of practicing, in many years. What I want to draw from is not technique. I’m no longer interested in being a piano virtuoso in any way, shape or form. That’s not what I’m about. I’m interested in allowing the innermost person to express itself, to respond to whatever the musical environment may be, moment to moment, and to encourage others to have the courage to not be afraid to walk into that kind of darkness.”

Although Hancock has numerous plans for the remainder of 2003, none involve touring the Future-2-Future band. Hancock’s next project will piggyback on his eighth Grammy-winning album, Gershwin’s World [Verve], a critically acclaimed response to the Gershwin Centennial. Joining forces with arranger-conductor Robert Sadin, who conceptualized the album, he will play his own music as well as compositions by Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington and Gershwin with philharmonic orchestras in America and Europe. Nor is he neglecting his distinguished legacy in hardcore jazz, with engagements booked for his quartet (Carrington, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and bassist Scott Colley) and with Verve labelmates Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove in the New Directions Band, which last year released a 2001 location date from Toronto’s Massey Hall, devoted primarily to the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Massey Hall was the venue where, in 1953, bebop icons Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach convened to document the legendary “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” and Hancock will go there in May to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Kenny Garrett and Nicholas Payton.

It will also be roughly fifty years from the time when the 13-year-old Hancock – a classical prodigy who at 11 had played Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — heard a classmate play jazz trio at a variety show at Hyde Park High School. “I didn’t know anything about improvising then,” Hancock recalls. “I played Classical music and Rhythm-and-Blues. If it wasn’t on the page, I didn’t play it. I had no idea what this guy was doing, but it was organized and rhythmically it was cool. I became curious and decided to learn how to do it, and the more I investigated, the more I liked it. He was playing things that George Shearing had recorded, like ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ which we had at home. I found phrases I liked, and tried to find the notes on the piano or by singing the part. Then I’d write them down, continue until I got the whole phrase, and try to play the phrase by looking at the notes on the page. I noticed it sounded different from when George Shearing played it, and I looked more closely at what was happening. I noticed that some notes were louder than others, that he used accents, held some parts of the phrase longer — little nuances that made the difference. So when I was 14 and in high school, I was getting experience in ear training and sight-singing.”

Progressing rapidly, Hancock began to participate in the bustling Chicago scene towards the end of high school, going to jam sessions and picking up ideas from such reharmonization-oriented local pianists as Billy Wallace, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens and Muhal Richard Abrams, young progressives like Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, and Wilbur Ware, and future bandmates like George Coleman, Julian Priester and James Spaulding, the latter two members of Sun Ra’s ’50s Arkestra. He matriculated at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he initially majored in electrical engineering. During summer vacations he took club gigs, including one for which he recalls hiring Jack DeJohnette to play bass. With increasing regularity he attended the jam sessions, including one produced by Joe Segal at the Gate of Horn on the North Side. There he heard the blind pianist Chris Anderson.

“Right after I heard him, and wiped the tears from my eyes, because what he played was so beautiful, I studied with him for a week,” Hancock recalls. “His harmonic thinking and the heart that went into his playing stunned me. When I looked at him – blind, bones brittle, using a crutch — I said, ‘Who is this mother?’ Then he got up and played, and he was playing some harmonic things that Bill Evans was not dealing with at the time. I said, ‘I want to learn what this stuff is!’ For anybody at that time, to have studied with Chris would be a great advantage.

“I also heard Sun Ra a couple of times. Once he was rehearsing in the basement of the Sutherland, I somehow found out about it and checked him out a bit. I didn’t really dig it, but it was interesting. It was a bit much for me at the time.”

In a sense, Hancock is a prototype Chicago musician of his era, sharing philosophical affinities with fellow South Side products like Eddie Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Charles Stepney and Maurice White. In his preoccupation with process, technology, collectivity and self-determination, in the risk-taking imperatives that drive him, in his iconoclastic temperament, in his desire to express himself in populist and highbrow forums, to crack the codes of multiple musical languages towards humanistic narrative ends, he embodies the ancient-to-the-future perspective postulated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago during the decade after he departed for New York and began his storied career.

“I describe the whole Chicago experience as school,” he says. “You learned all the basics and got exposure to elements coming from a wide variety of sources, from the total avant garde, which Sun Ra could be, to things from Gene Ammons, the blues, and the way different cats played bebop. The musicians and audiences always encouraged some form of experimentation. You didn’t have to have things perfect; Chicago’s jazz fans supported whatever you were into. Chicago was the best foundation I could think of for going to New York.”

Like his former employer Miles Davis, Hancock is a musician who actually has guided the future and changed the time. Personal modesty aside, he remains a virtuoso on his instrument, and his music has a novelistic scope. Pianists acknowledge his unsurpassed sensitivity of touch and nuance, and since his days with Miles Davis — think of “81” or “Stuff” — he’s known how to switch on a dime from the highest highbrow abstractions to the most soulful soul brother funk. He defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound on Filles de Kilmanjaro and Fat Albert Rotunda, and was a pioneer in establishing a vocabulary from early synthesizers. He led the curve in groove-based experimental music with Mwandishi, in rhythm-and-blues with Headhunters, and in blending hip-hop and Euro-Techno aesthetics, without ceding innovative status in the hardcore jazz pantheon.

“I think Herbie’s a genius to the point that when he chooses to go Pop, without sacrificing everything he is, he becomes authentic Pop,” says Roney. “When Headhunters came out, he changed the way pianists and keyboard players play R&B; now they all do that little tremolo and those comping riffs he does. Herbie listened to Sly Stone, and he and Stevie were friends, but he comes into the arena without offending it, and ups the ante. The jazz purists hate it, and the pure R&B people get mad. But you turn around, and everybody’s trying to play keyboards like Herbie Hancock.”

“Tell the members of a symphony orchestra, or a jazz musician, or a rapper or R&B guy, ‘You’re going to work with Herbie Hancock,’ and they’re thrilled,” Sadin says. “This is a person who goes into a room and is equally comfortable with the executives and the people who prepare the food. And it’s reflected in the scope of his music. He absorbs messages from a wide range of peoples and cultures, and then transforms and develops them into his own language. But not solely in a technical-analytical way, like being able to transcribe the beats and say they’re playing on the three or some such thing. He responds deeply to the emotional climate that brought those accents into being. He plays with a conviction and naturalness which is different from someone who studies a musical style and recreates it.”

As in the Mwandishi days, Hancock, who authored some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in all of jazz history before his thirtieth birthday, has turned primarily to collaboration and recomposition in constructing the sonic environments in which he operates. In most cases, like his old friends Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, he works with younger musicians whose sensibilities coalesced in a climate that involved absorbing his music and forming their own conclusions from it, refreshing Hancock through their ability to interact with him on many levels.

“Writing was always a painful process for me,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work; I have to practically beat myself into it. When I was much younger, my perspective was narrower. I had a lot of time on my hands, everything was kind of new, and I wrote a lot of things. The more material you put out and the deeper you dig in for that material, especially if you’re a guy like me who doesn’t like to do something he’s already done, it gets harder. Also, I’m getting older, which I think makes it harder to do. Collaborating is a great way to extend yourself.”

Now collecting Social Security, Hancock is thinking about a project on which he’ll respond to some of the brightest lights in progressive Hip-Hop/Urban. “The Future-2-Future record represented a more international and European look at music,” says Passick, who cites discussions with Amir from the Roots, and also the producers Rashad Smith and J.K. “I see a great correlation between the Roots and Herbie’s Electric Funk period. He had a major influence. When I talk to prominent people in Hip-Hop, the amount of Herbie’s music that is prominent in their life is astounding.”

For Hancock, it’s all part of a lifelong process of discovery. “To want to put something out there, I need new stuff,” he sums up. “Whether the new stuff is old stuff with a new hat, or old stuff treated in a whole new way, or whether it’s actually new material, that’s what I want. I need to feel I’m making a new perspective.”

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Interview for Barnes & Noble Review, 2014:

No living musician hews more closely to the notion of “Renaissance Man” than Herbie Hancock, whose artistic production over the past half century continues to stamp the twenty-first-century soundtrack.

Consider the range and depth of Hancock’s career markers. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, he performed Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at eleven. When he left the Miles Davis Quintet at twenty-eight to explore his own vision, Hancock was already a key figure in the jazz piano pantheon, had defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound, and had composed some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in jazz history, some of them for the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Two decades he would win an Oscar in that genre for Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight.

By the early ’70s, Hancock was pioneering in ways to incorporate synthesizers into real-time musical flow with Mwandishi, his first working band, which led the curve in groove-based experimental, improvised music, and would influence numerous practitioners of electronica and other turn-of-the-century beat musics. Mid-decade, he led the curve again with Headhunters, his enormously popular band, and yet again in 1984 with the hip-hop/techno hybrid put forth on the album Future Shock, his first of fourteen Grammy winners. He earned a twelfth Grammy, in 2008, for River: The Joni Letters—only the second jazz album ever to earn an Album of the Year designation—on which he framed reinterpretations of the Joni Mitchell songbook by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the composer herself. His fourteenth Grammy, in 2011, acknowledged The Imagine Project, a one world–oriented extravaganza on which Hancock traveled to various locations around the world to record pop repertoire with an international cast of characters.

What makes Hancock tick? Some answers appear in his memoir, Possibilities, released six months after the seventy-four-year-old UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Professor of Music at UCLA, and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz fulfilled his obligations to Harvard as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry with a half-dozen lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.” It’s the latest step in an iconoclastic career driven by risk-taking imperatives; a preoccupation with process, technology and collective expression; an equal comfort zone in populist and highbrow forums; and a desire to crack the codes of multiple musical languages and refract them into his own argot. Hancock’s narrative—he collaborated with ghost-writer Lisa Dickey—vividly portrays these qualities. It’s as no-holds-barred as his jazz playing—intuitive and logical, refined and raw, pragmatic and utopian, real-world and spiritual. —Ted Panken

The Barnes & Noble Review: You were initially an engineering major at Grinnell College, and your relationship to technology is one of several through-lines that thread through the text. Another is your creative process.

Herbie Hancock: I’ve always been a very curious person. It’s in my DNA.  It’s in the book that I’d take apart watches and clocks and other things before I showed an interest in music. That curiosity led to my interest in jazz. When I was thirteen, I thought that to play jazz, you had to be older than I was, and I never paid attention to it because it didn’t make sense to me and didn’t move me.  Then I saw a kid my age playing jazz on piano, and got the sense that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t just a bunch of notes.  Rhythmically it was cool; there was a beat to it. I was a pretty good piano player at the time, and I decided then that I wanted to learn how to do it.  So that curiosity opened the door. Later, that curiosity led me to work musically in many different genres, to put things together that maybe hadn’t been put together before.

BNR: You describe how each of your encounters with various new technologies in beta phases—tablets, synthesizers, MIDI, musical software, the vocoder, drum machines, the mini-disc—stimulated an entirely new project, a new world of sound.

HH: That’s true. My curiosity enabled me to integrate the technology with music. Once I changed my major in college to music, I still would have been a geek and a gadget guy, but I didn’t think there would be a way to combine music and technology until synthesizers came along. That opened up new doors.

BNR: In actualizing your technological vision during the ’70s and ’80s you worked closely with Bryan Bell, who taught himself programming language and, in one vignette, from 1979, predicts, “We’ll be able to sell music on the computer.” Two years earlier, well before MIDI, he engineered a working synthesizer that powered and fully controlled all your keyboards.

HH: When I bought my Apple II+ computers in 1979, there were scarce examples of interfacing computers and music, but I was convinced computers would become a strong element in the music field. I could never have predicted how true that would be with iTunes and so forth today. Bryan always jokes that when something new arrived at my studio, the first thing I’d say was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” This would be something it couldn’t do, but Bryan would try to make it happen. That led to a lot of explorations that preceded commercial products made by someone else. We were just trying to make stuff that I could use.

BNR: How has your M.O. for research and development evolved? A different process than during the ’70s and ’80s?

HH: A new development in the way I look at my creative output, which is primarily due to my practice of Buddhism, is that I think about purpose when I make a record. In other words, what is it that you want to encourage in other people, not just share musically, but perhaps stimulate or point out or champion?

BNR: A passage in the second chapter portrays a moment in high school, when your parents punished you by not allowing you to attend a party. You assuaged disappointment and anger by thinking through the situation rationally. That theme of using logic to control your emotions—of detachment—is consistent.

HH: When I was young, I did that to avoid pain or punishment or whatever. Later on, I realized that in doing that I’m cutting off part of my own humanity. I didn’t realize how damaging it could be if carried to extremes. I also didn’t understand the concept of “no pain, no gain.” We know that applies to physical exercise. But suffering and challenges are part of life. Without them, you’d be bored to tears; if you let them control you, you are losing the battle. You can’t necessarily grow from nice things happening. So I don’t look at suffering as something I need to get away from, but can actually use to move forward.

Revealing my experience with crack was a difficult decision. My daughter and my wife felt that the book was the vehicle for talking about this. I had been trying to suppress this experience, as though it had never happened. But I should have known better. I thought I could accomplish a couple of things by discussing it. Most important is that someone struggling with addiction or whatever other challenge might benefit from seeing my path in winning this battle. Also, I wanted to acknowledge that my life hasn’t been all goody-two-shoes. So I freely pulled back the stuff I was trying to throw out of my life, to reconsider the reality of those things. In Buddhism, we talk about the phrase of “turning poison into medicine.” This is the way for me to do that.

BNR: You certainly do not paint yourself as a saint, particularly during the ’60s and early ’70s. Your depictions of several acid trips speak to your powers of description.

HH: That’s the way it was.

BNR: From beginning to end, Miles Davis is a constant presence. He was a mentor to you, a kind of father figure. Sometimes sons rebel against fathers, and I’m wondering if you expressed resistance to him in ways that inflected the course of your career.

HH: I was twenty-three when I joined Miles’s band. Tony Williams was seventeen. Now, Tony did have that kind of rebellion you’re talking about with Miles. But Miles wasn’t that kind of father figure for me, and I didn’t feel a need to be rebellious against him. I admired his music, and I admired many things about his ethics in music. He had so many aspects to his character that were valuable to the musicians who played with him. When people who played with Miles’s different bands have an opportunity to converse, we all have similar stories we can tell.

BNR: How do you denote a successful performance? What’s your metric for critique?

HH: That’s hard to describe. I’ve had the experience where I’ve thought something didn’t work so well when I was playing, but on the tour bus we’d listen to a recording from the mixing console, and, in fact, the stuff was killing!

BNR: You describe that dynamic in talking about the Plugged Nickel recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1965.

HH: Yes, that was a surprise. I guess when I play, I experience a certain freedom from spontaneous connection. When the music is flowing, and the joy of discovery is happening, and there’s a very open space for a wide variety of approaches to transpire moment to moment, and all of us feel that joy—to me, that’s a successful performance. Not the applause that comes from the audience. Of course, it’s nice. I love it. Who doesn’t love that? I’ve had eggs thrown at me, too, in Germany. But I knew that we were hot and the music was smokin’, so it didn’t bother me. It was maybe the first time I experienced that. But it gave me the opportunity to feel courage and conviction about what I was doing.

BNR: Throughout the book, whenever you refer to jazz, which you don’t try to define, you are eloquent and passionate about your relationship to it, as, for example, in your acceptance speeches for receiving an Oscar and a Grammy. You’re one of the very few who has both attained eminence in jazz as a stylist, an improviser, and a composer, and been a highly successful practitioner in popular music. Do you see the idioms as related or separate? Do different components of your personality come into play when you address one or the other?

HH: I don’t think I could do what I did if I drew a fine line between the two. But jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz. I’m fortunate that jazz is my foundation. Yes, I started with classical music, and classical music is also foundational for me. It’s through classical music that I learned to read music, to sit and hold my hands and fingers properly at the instrument. That’s a big reason why I’ve never had any physical problems. Granted, I don’t curve my fingers exactly like I did when I first started off, but that’s the nature of the process. You find your own space. From what you’re taught, from what other people have done, you find what’s best for you. We’re all different, and you have to personalize these things.

BNR: The notion of individualism is a component of jazz culture, too, particularly in the period when you were coming up.

HH: Absolutely. The cool thing is, in the ’60s, at the time I joined Miles’s band, rock ‘n’ roll was hot. Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come had become a landmark recording, and avant-garde, even though it was still kind of underground, was influencing the post-bebop musicians who were more visible. Of course, there was John Coltrane and the group we had with Miles. It was a very fertile time for creativity on all levels. Look what the Beatles did. Sgt. Pepper. Whoever thought rock ‘n’ roll artists would do stuff like that? Joni Mitchell! A lot of stuff was going on.

BNR: You developed very sensitive antennae, to pick up and assimilate these diverse sounds. I guess you were also absorbing James Brown and Sly Stone during those years.

HH: Right. When I did Head Hunters, I was thinking about Sly Stone. That’s why I named one of the songs “Sly,” as an homage to his influence, even though the music had nothing to do with him.

In the book, I describe that Miles’s attitude made me decide it must be cool to be open. Even though I didn’t admit it then, I liked James Brown’s music. I liked the beat. When I was a kid, I didn’t just listen to classical music and jazz. I was listening to R&B, and I played R&B. Things like Head Hunters and “Rockit” connect to my background, as offshoots of R&B, in a sense. I was born in 1940, so I’m a little older than the rock ‘n’ roll generation. I didn’t really like rock ‘n’ roll, but I did like R&B. It’s funny that Jimi Hendrix was associated with rock ‘n’ roll, but he was basically a blues player. Of course, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll grew out of. What he played was perhaps . . . I was going to say more authentic, but that’s not what I mean. Maybe more connected with those roots.

BNR: Well, he had a direct and lineal connection to the real blues, the blues that was going on not far from your house on the South Side, not once-removed and studying records.

HH: Exactly. But the thing is, I wouldn’t even listen to Jimi Hendrix, because to me, his name was associated with rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t start checking him out until later, when the rumor was getting around that Miles and Jimi might do something together, which would involve me and Tony Williams and Ron Carter. That aroused my curiosity, but then he died.

BNR: Although it happened too late to be discussed in Possibilities, you served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard earlier this year, and presented six lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.”

HH: I got a call from a representative of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard who told me that they wanted to bestow upon me the Norton Professorship of Poetry, which I hadn’t heard of. I had no idea how heavy that was until I saw names like Igor Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot and Leonard Bernstein. Then I was told that I’d have to do lectures. To make things fit with my career, I gave three in February and three in March. I ordered Bernstein’s lectures from Barnes & Noble, but the tone was too pedantic for me to emulate. He could pull that off, but I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be me.

One of the lectures is called “Breaking the Rules.” I wanted to share an important concept—that the people we study broke the rules, and created new ones. Whoever heard of the people that followed the rules? Of course, it’s important to learn the rules. I’m constantly in the process of doing that. But don’t confine me to those rules. It’s important to think outside the box, and not be stuck inside the comfort zone.

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For Harold Mabern’s 79th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2004

Pianist Harold Mabern celebrates his 79th birthday today. I had a chance to hear him last night playing bassist Gregory Ryan’s weekly gig at at a midtown steakhouse (Joe Farnsworth on drums). The piano, which is decent but was shaky in the upper register, is placed between the stairway down from street level and the bar, and to call the room noisy would be an understatement. Still, Mabern played with customary focus, power, melodic invention and soulfulness — treated the gig with complete respect and commitment, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. A son of Memphis, Tennessee, who spent the second half of the ’50s in Chicago, Mabern has been a beacon and mentor for several generations of pianists, among them James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer, with whom he played in a five-piano band twenty years ago. I had several opportunities to talk with HM during my WKCR years, and had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with him in 2004. Here’s the uncut version.

Harold Mabern Blindfold Test (10-1-04) – Raw Copy:

1.  Earl Hines, “Don’t You Know I Care” (from EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON, New World, 1970/1997) (Hines, piano; Duke Ellington, composer) – (5 stars)

Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care.” I can’t say that I right away recognize the pianist. I like what I’m hearing. It’s hard to tell if it’s a recent recording or something that was done a few years ago. Right now, Ted, I must say you’ve got me on this one so far, even though the sound… Right away, I know it’s not, but right now I can’t say who it is. Phineas recorded this, but I know it’s not Phineas, and Mulgrew Miller recorded this recently—I know it’s not him.  It’s not Ray Bryant, and it’s definitely not Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or any of those people. And it’s not Art Tatum.  It’s not Teddy Wilson. So if I had to take a wild guess (I don’t know if guessing is permitted), I would have to say someone like Jay McShann, or probably someone like Earl Hines. That’s just an educated guess. Of the two, I would say Earl Hines. I like the overlapping phrases with left hand and right hand. And the touch of the right hand. His touch seems to be a little heavier than Teddy Wilson’s, whose touch was a little more velvety, like Art Tatum’s was. 5 stars. [AFTER] What I’m accustomed to do, as I tell the students: Process of elimination. Eliminate who you know it’s not, and then you feel it can only be one or two people. I possibly could have said James P. Johnson, but I didn’t, or Fats Waller. When I first came to New York City, I worked at Smalls Paradise with the MJT+3, and a couple of the old-timers were there, and they looked at me and said, “Young man, you remind me a lot of Earl Hines.” To me, that was a compliment, because I didn’t know much about Earl Hines at that point. However, we all know that was Nat Cole’s hero in Chicago. He was doing everything he could to be around Earl Hines whenever he could be. I was told that he even dressed like Earl Hines—very impeccable. As they say, Earl Hines was like the Bud Powell of his time; he just opened up everything. I had a chance to work opposite him on a Newport Jazz Festival in San Remo, Italy. George Wein produced it.  I was with Wes Montgomery. We had a chance to talk. We had some pictures taken together, if I can ever find them—little small snapshots.

Reflecting back, I don’t know if you watch the Westerns channels, but they’ve been showing a lot of the black cowboys, and they mainly talk about Herb Jeffries, who was the first one to really get some prominence. He was singing with Earl Hines’ band in Chicago. Every time I hear his name, I think about Herbie Hancock. People don’t know this, but Herbie was named after Herb Jeffries—Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A little bit of trivia.

2.  Uri Caine, “Stiletto” (from LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Caine, piano, comp.; Drew Gress, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums) (3 stars)

Right now you really got me, because he could be anybody, blanket statement. I don’t hear enough of the concept to really say. We know it’s avant-garde, or controlled or uncontrolled freedom, whatever way you want to look at it, and I’m not really into it that much, even though I can appreciate some of the things I’ve listened to by Cecil Taylor over the years. Well, I can see at least it has some kind of form to it, even though I still don’t recognize the pianist. I don’t think it’s Cecil Taylor, because the form is a bit on the traditional side…whatever that means. It’s more of what I would call, as I said before, “controlled freedom,” because it has some kind of theme to it. But as to who it is, at this point it’s hard to say. Conceptually speaking, I think it’s probably somebody on the younger side, one of the younger generation guys. To take a guess (because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by this pianist), Matthew Shipp. That’s just a guess. Or another pianist who I also don’t really know a lot about—Jason Moran. Again, that’s just a guess. It’s definitely somebody who’s been influenced by McCoy Tyner and Herbie, even though, as I said before, it’s a little bit on the free side.  But it swings. I like the sound of the drums. See, with this kind of music, at least if it swings, you can get some kind of musical enjoyment out of it. As I said, not to be redundant, I hear traces of McCoy and Herbie and them. Is it possible it could be a female? I don’t think Geri Allen, but perhaps someone like Rachel Z—even though I’m not that familiar with her playing. It’s definitely somebody younger than I am. One person comes to mind, but again I haven’t heard a lot of him—Eric Lewis. But I don’t think he’s recorded yet. Or possibly Marcus Roberts. That’s just a guess. 3 stars, because it swings. [AFTER] I know who he is, but I’m not familiar with his playing at all. Once they got into the form, I enjoyed it. It was swinging. It took on a theme of its own, so it was something I could grab onto.

3. Danilo Perez, “Overjoyed” (from …TILL THEN, Verve, 2003) (Perez, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) (5 stars)

I like the song, Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed.” But I have to figure out who the pianist is. So far, I like what I’m hearing. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite pianists, but I don’t think it’s him. I hear it in the left hand-right hand. Geoff Keezer comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s Geoff. I like the sound of the recording, too. The bass is in tune, good sound on the drums. Very interesting.  Here we go again; educated guess again. It’s not Geoff Keezer. It’s not Mulgrew Miller. Possibly somebody like Brad Mehldau.  That’s just an educated guess. I enjoyed it, so I’d say 4 stars for the performance, and another star for the genius of Stevie Wonder. So 5 stars. [AFTER] Isn’t that something. I should have known it, because I think I heard it recently on the radio. I’ve heard Danilo do some wonderful things with Roy Haynes.

4. Alice Coltrane, “Walk With Me” (from TRANSLINEAR LIGHT, Verve, 2004) (Coltrane, piano; James Genus, b; Jeff Watts, d) – (4 stars)

It’s a good sound coming out of the instrument. So far I haven’t heard enough to put my finger on anybody that I recognize. It has what you call a gospel type theme to it. Whoever the pianist is, they have a good sound out of the instrument, good technique, good chord voicings in the lower register. But right now, I don’t know who it is or who it could be. Something about the theme reminds me a little bit of Keith Jarrett, but I don’t think it’s Keith. Some parts of it remind me a little of Stanley Cowell, one of my dearest and closest friends and a true musical giant, but I don’t think it’s Stanley. 4 stars. [AFTER] I noticed the harp-like qualities in the right hand. Alice Coltrane, nice. Very, very well played.

5. Eric Reed, “La Berthe” (from E-BOP, Savant, 2003) (Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Elmo Hope, composer) (4 stars)

Nice little theme. It reminds me of something that maybe Thelonious would have written, theme-wise and the way it’s syncopated. I like the performance. I like the pianist.  Nice touch. The concept reminds me of the kind of stuff that Woody Shaw used to play. But I don’t have an idea who it could be. I like the piece. I like the concept. It’s a good touch from the pianist. It’s the kind of song I would enjoy playing. But I can only take a guess on who it might be. Like I said, I hear a lot of Monk influence in the performance and in the theme itself. Possibly someone like Jessica Williams, but that’s just a guess. I think it’s an original composition. That’s the feeling I get. What period? It sounds like something that could have been written within the last year or so, conceptually speaking. Both the piece and the performance sound very up-to-date. 4 stars. [AFTER] Sorry, Eric. But he’s one of my favorites. That just shows music is never dated. Because conceptually speaking, it sounds like it could have been written last week. Eric Reed is a tremendous young musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He understands all phases of the music. I told him he’s one of the few young pianists who understands the difference between blocked chords and locked hands, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, do I really?” and we laughed. But he’s a tremendous young man. Stride, boogie-woogie, everything. I have a lot of respect for him.

6. Don Pullen, “Warriors” (from NEW BEGINNINGS, Blue Note, 1988) (Pullen, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Tony Williams, drums) (5 stars)

Right away, it sounds like a pianist I always enjoyed, because he proved he could play on the edge of being out, but he could play inside, he could play tradition. He was also a very good organ specialist. Just listening to the theme and the pianistic things he’s doing, it reminds me a lot of Don Pullen. Bingo!  At last! He was a tremendous musician. [Who do you think the drummer is?] I get a feeling it’s someone like Ed Blackwell. I don’t know if it’s him, but… The thing I like about Don Pullen… One night at the Vanguard years ago, before they got the new piano, and the upper register was a little bit out, I asked him, “Don, how did you hear up there without… You make it sound so…” He said, “I just play it.” The upper register can be a little tricky. He did wonderful things, and it didn’t seem to detract from his performance. I had a lot of respect for Don Pullen. Great musician. You can hear his classical training in his piano playing. I guess the obvious thing to say about the drummer, since they worked together, would be Dannie Richmond, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be him. Something about him reminds me a bit of Roy Haynes. I don’t hear enough of the snare sound and the cymbal, but rhythmically it reminds me a little taste of Roy Haynes. Or possibly Tony Williams. Ah, see, that’s that Massachusetts connection with Alan Dawson, Roy, Tony. Boy, could Tony play. I’ll give it 5 stars for the overall performance. To me, that’s what you call controlled freedom. The things he was doing on the piano made sense because you can hear the skills he had developed through his classical training coming through.

7. Geoff Keezer, “Gollum’s Song” (from WALK ON, Telarc, (Keezer, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

I like that. Geoff Keezer comes to mind. The concept of the song, the touch in the right hand, the ideas in the right hand. At first, a little bit, it reminded me of Mulgrew; they have a similar kind of thing at times.  But listening, it reminds me a lot of Geoff. But I need to listen a little bit more to the right hand. If I had to guess, I’d say Geoff Keezer. Give him 10 stars, if there’s such a thing. I mean, he’s that good. He’s a tremendous musician.  The one thing I love about him is that he’s really captured the essence of Phineas Newborn, Jr., more than any pianist that I can think of. Naturally, Mulgrew and Donald Brown. But Geoff has captured the little nuances. Not just the obvious stuff, which is hard enough, but Geoff has captured those little nuances that Phineas used to do. And consider the fact that Geoff never met Phineas, and all he had to go by was what he heard on records and the one video.  But I have tremendous respect for this young man. He never ceases to amaze me. I like the interplay with the bass and drums. I heard Scott Colley once with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note; he’s a very good bassist. Geoffrey Keezer. Eau Claire. Wisconsin. 5 stars. He’s even found a way to get into his playing a lot of those Latin montuno rhythmic things. He’s been getting into that a lot.

8. Herbie Hancock, “Blue Otani” (from THE PIANO, Columbia/Legacy, 1978/2004) (Hancock, piano, composer) (4½ stars)

I like it. Naturally, it’s the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Now I’ll try to figure out who it is! Oh, I like it. It’s a lot going on. When it first started out, the chord things reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock. Then it reminded me a little bit of Ray Bryant. But I’m sure it’s neither one. I enjoyed the performance, but I must say I’m stumped on that one. I have no idea. But 4½ stars. To play like that is very hard to do. That’s the thing that separated Art Tatum from all of us. To play fast or slow, and play it where the consistency of the time is still going on. He had some nice ideas, too. Good technique, good ideas—I liked the overall performance. But I have no idea. [AFTER] You’re kidding! See, I got half of it right! Years ago, we used to talk about solo piano and stride and stuff, and years ago he wasn’t really interested so much in the stride aspect.

9. Brad Mehldau, “Anything Goes” (from ANYTHING GOES, Warner, 2004) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums) (5 stars)

Hmm, “Anything Goes,” huh?  Nicely done. Cole Porter. Yeah, I like that. I like the concept. I like the fact it’s odd-metered; it sounds like it’s in 5/4. It’s nice to take a song like that, which is unique in its own way. At this point, I don’t know who the pianist is, but I like what I’m hearing. Good right hand, good left hand. I’d guess Brad Mehldau because of the ideas in the right hand, and the way he uses his left hand. You can tell he has a good left hand also. And the overall concept of the piece. Good harmonic concept also. I’ll tell you, with the quality of the crop of pianists coming out within the last 5 to 10 years, if I had to start now, I wouldn’t choose the piano.  There are some rough guys out there, man. And ladies, too. 5 stars.

10. Denny Zeitlin, “E.S.P.” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, p.; Buster Williams, b; Matt Wilson, d) – (5 stars)

Right away, I know I like the composition. I don’t want to give the wrong composer credit, but I know it’s either Herbie’s tune or Wayne Shorter’s. Sometimes I get them a little mixed up. But that much I know. The tune is either Herbie’s or Wayne’s when they played with Miles.  There’s some stuff there chordally that reminds me of Ahmad. Another one of these two-handed pianists. It reminds me a little bit of a gentleman that I used to hang out with in Chicago, when he was studying at Johns Hopkins. Denny Zeitlin comes to mind because of the harmonic concept and the ability to use both hands equally well. But that’s just a guess. Again, process of elimination, I know who it’s not, but he comes to mind. The cymbal beat from the drummer reminds me a little bit of Tony Williams. I just heard something from the bassist that reminded me a little of Ron Carter, but it’s not Ron Carter. Oh, that’s Buster Williams. Tremendous musician. Unsung hero. Would that possibly be Matt Wilson? So it’s Denny Zeitlin. A couple of years ago, I saw that trio working at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago 5 stars, mainly because of our Chicago connection and the love we both have for Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Wallace. He had a lot of respect and still has a lot of respect for Billy Wallace, Dr. Denny Zeitlin.

11. Anthony Wonsey, “Darn That Reality” (from BLUES FOR HIROSHI, Sharp-9, 2004) (Wonsey, p; Richie Goods, b; Tony Reedus, d) – (5 stars)

Sounds like “Darn That Dream” but rearranged. I like it. The pianist sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite call him. David Hazeltine comes to mind because of the arrangement of the song, for some reason, but I’m not sure. The drums sound like it could be Joe Farnsworth, but again I’m not totally sure. It sounds like David Hazeltine to me, even though a lot of the stuff he’s doing in the right hand is a little out of character. By that I mean it’s not normally the way he would play.  But because of the arrangement, I would have to say David Hazeltine, possibly Farnsworth, maybe Peter Washington. 5 stars. It’s not? Well, I still give it 5 stars. I hear a lot of Phineas Newborn type of influence in the right hand with the triplets and things. Swinging. [AFTER] Oh, Mulgrew Miller’s ex-student. That’s why I could hear a little of the Phineas Newborn influence. Wonsey. I’ll still give him 5.

12. Bud Powell, “Tea For Two” (from BIRDLAND ‘53, Vol.1, FRESH SOUND, 1953/1991) (Powell, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) (5 stars)

I know it’s an older recording. Just listening to the concept, I’d have to say Bud Powell, off the top. I’ll stand by Bud Powell, and give him all the stars you can muster up. “Tea For Two.” As an educated guess, I’d say the drummer is Max, and the bassist is either Mingus or George Duvivier. Possibly Arthur Taylor? Just an educated guess. Bud definitely opened stuff up. He and Nat Cole. Two different schools, but very influential. 5 stars.

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Filed under Alice Coltrane, Anthony Wonsey, Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Chicago, Denny Zeitlin, Don Pullen, Earl Hines, Eric Reed, Geoff Keezer, Harold Mabern, Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn