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Herbie Hancock: “Jazz has never been so present”

Ahead of a concert in Vienna on July 12, interview with the 82-year-old virtuoso pianist, who continues tirelessly to scour the world and its stages to promote his art.

by Jacques Denis
July 4th 2022

That was just sixty years ago. Herbie Hancock published his first album on Blue Note, the aptly named Takin’ Off which, carried by the future standard Watermelon Man, immediately launched the career of the young prodigy who had just emerged from the ranks of Donald Byrd. From then on, the pianist, born on April 12, 1940 in Chicago, was to make a lasting mark on the world of music, signing certain essential chapters for future generations.

The music of Miles Davis, whom he joined in 1963 in the second historical quintet and which he left in the firmament of the electric period, would it have reached such heights without the presence of his subtle touch? Would Antonioni’s Blow-Up have quite the same echo without its soundtrack? Would samplers of all kinds have been as well loaded without the slew of themes that Herbie Hancock has provided over the years, starting with Cantaloupe Island, repeatedly covered and then remixed? Doesn’t modern electronic music owe something to the author of Rain Dance, a tangle of abstract loops published in 1973? And doesn’t every fan of rare groove venerate Head Hunters, emblem of jazz-funk where Hancock, ex-child prodigy weaned from Mozart who became a pop culture icon with this bestseller, appears on the cover with a smiley worthy of future raves and admits his fascination with Sly Stone? Without forgetting Future Shock, a title borrowed from Curtis Mayfield, but also a reference to the book by sociologist Alvin Toffler where he describes the psychological shock caused by the exponential speed of change in a hyper-technological society. Doesn’t it announce the advent of the robotic era embodied by Rock It, a hit that will mark the 80s? And the duo soberly baptized 1+1 that he will sign in 1997 with his best and most faithful accomplice, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, is he not a model for any apprentice jazzman as was twenty years earlier this duo evening with Chick Corea?

Impossible to circumscribe the talent of this “Chameleon” – a nickname inherited from one of his most famous classics – who has always sought to combine popular and scholarly, experimental and crossover. His visionary eclecticism will have enlightened the path of many musicians, and not just jazz. Yet it is to this music for which this composer, many times celebrated at the Grammys and now multi-decorated, has signed so many standards that he keeps coming back to, like a star revolving around its sun. A story of memory for those who continue despite the weight of the years to think about the present. Absent from the record bins for more than ten years, it is now on stage that Herbie Hancock continues to spread the good word, as in the Jazz theater in Vienna, on July 12, a festival which welcomes him this summer for the fifteenth time. A record. The perfect opportunity to start a conversation.

For several years, a new album with many guests, including Terrace Martin, Kendrick Lamar or Kamasi Washington, has been announced. What about?

My initial ambition was to bring together young musicians that I appreciate. I have been working for about ten years on this record, which has been slow to come out for various reasons, in particular questions of law, but also the choice of technology, which does not stop evolving. It’s been three times that I cover the same single by changing the arrangements which I have the feeling that they are quickly dated. I keep all the takes, of course, the editing choices, all the accumulated work. We have set a new deadline, this end of the year, to release something. But to be honest, it is more and more difficult for me to write music, being invested in many other projects. The time is not extendable, unfortunately.

Do you take more pleasure today on stage than in the studio?

The stage is above all a matter of sharing, joy, spontaneity, even if it also requires a lot of work. Every night, even if we stick more or less to the same setlist, the challenge is renewed. In the studio, the sources of fun are different: you take the time to tweak sounds, test formulas, experiment… It’s a laboratory of ideas.

This desire to open up avenues is not new to you. You have always been tech-savvy, like the internet. Twenty-five years later, what is your view of the evolution of new technologies?

Everything is going faster and faster. Speed ​​is a fundamental factor in this boom. Today, there is no longer any need for physical synthesizers. Just download software. And it’s very exciting because you discover sounds, which you can constantly improve. The very nature of music is changing. We have entered the technological age, a revolution which in a few years has upset all the data accumulated over the course of the 20th century, which was nevertheless also revolutionary.

The dark side of this is the Gafam, the emergence of a control society that even affects the process of creation and especially the distribution of music.

The whole model is affected. In music, the fear of hacking has, for example, generated the creation of new standards in order to preserve the integrity of a work. This hack of creation is not new, but it seems that it has developed at a high speed and that it is increasingly difficult to counter it. On the other hand, Silicon Valley companies now have more opportunity than ever to trace you, to make you a target for advertising. We are constantly monitored.

In music, the consequence of streaming has also been to promote music that is easier to access.

These changes in consumption patterns have consequences on production and distribution, but also on the public whose attention has become increasingly fleeting. I have to take all this into consideration when I write, and it doesn’t make my life any easier, not having grown up in this culture of instant erasure.

Conversely, you have been involved for years in preserving the memory of jazz, in its distribution as well…

Yes, especially through the International Jazz Day that I initiated in 2011 following my appointment as UNESCO ambassador. My intention was to make this music a diplomatic tool, an intercultural mediation since each edition takes place in different capitals: Havana like Paris. I never thought it would take on such importance. At the time, I chaired the Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz, an NGO that promotes music education around the world. A few years ago it became the Herbie Hancock Institute Of Jazz, so you can imagine that it takes time and energy. I don’t think I have enough twenty-four hours to fill my days. There are so many things to do for the present and the future of this music.


Speaking of the future: you have always been connected to younger generations.

Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Thundercat… I love all these musicians, for what they produce and for the fact that they spread this music to other audiences.

The famous slogan “Jazz is dead” is therefore definitely an ironic farce…

And how. Just turn on the radio to hear that jazz has never been so present, the most recent productions, even in pop, all refer to this idea of ​​sound inherited from Earth, Wind and Fire, James Brown or…


Exactly. All this music that mixes this type of influence is very popular and it’s not really displeasing to me. A more adventurous musician like Flying Lotus keeps tapping into this source of the past to create the sound of the future.

Sixty years ago you published your first album on Blue Note, and Watermelon Man was sampled dozens of times, notably by Flying Lotus. Does this mean that ultimately music is a story of a time loop?

Going back to the roots is always a good thing, I did it myself. This constantly encourages different generations to collaborate to develop new music, another sound. It is the best proof of vitality.

The other side of the coin is that in 1962 the civil rights movement was fighting for African Americans to have the same rights, and today Black Lives Matter is waging a similar fight…

I sincerely believe that it is fundamental that some continue to ask themselves the right questions about all those who are marginalized, about the slavery that generations of Africans have had to endure. We need lookouts who watch to warn us and fight for the best. Black Americans have no fear in facing the past, and they can even take pride in it: they have been able to exorcise this suffering through their creativity, especially artistic. What would music be without our decisive contribution? More generally, it is time for everyone to take stock, not to forget anything if we want all of humanity to come out of this. Each cell, each person, is part of the same family. We are all brothers and sisters, this is the only line to follow.

This refers to the teaching of Buddha, the principles of life that you have been following for fifty years…

Buddhism is the pillar of my thought, and its philosophy is turned towards positive forces. Nevertheless, when I look at the turn the world is taking, I perceive the tears of this Earth. What the Covid-19 told us, which represented a threat to the whole family, without exception. It is up to us to change our view of the other, to promote equality more than to want domination. I have hope in the human spirit but I am aware that the current times will be decisive for the future. Many young people work there, but others are afraid, and fear pushes them to the worst. We need to become again what we are, humanitarian humans, otherwise we will not succeed in overcoming climate change.

For some, the bets are already made. Do you remain optimistic?

The Buddhist teaching taught me that humanity was born in difficult conditions, this is what is called “Buddha nature”. You live with it, but it requires a state of awakening, that you are fair and not selfish, this value has become cardinal. What do we do to help each other? Reaching out is also lifting yourself up. We need courage to face these coming crises, but I really hope that humanity is ready for them.

Herbie Hancock, in concert on July 12 at Jazz à Vienne.
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