Interview: Herbie Hancock

Revisiting his Countless Connections

When Herbie Hancock brings his quartet to Japan this October, it will be like coming home. This is because the legendary jazz pianist is a member of the Japan-based Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai and a follower of Nichiren Buddhism. His faith is a big influence on his day-to-day life and also his music.

"Well, everything ties into the Buddhism, because that's the first thing I do when I wake up," he explained in a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "It's a foundation to shape my life."

But although Japan is a country that has a special significance for Hancock, he is keen to emphasize the universal and inclusive elements of his Buddhism.

"The Buddhism I practice comes from Japan," he added. "But in truth I don't think of the Buddhism that I practice as a Japanese religion, any more than we think of Christianity as a Middle Eastern religion, or Judaism as a Middle Eastern Religion. For me Buddhism is a religion for all people."

It is nevertheless unusual that a Chicago-born jazz pianist from an African American background should be an ardent adherent of a Japanese sect of Buddhism. But, when Hancock talks about the essence of his beliefs, the congruity between his spiritual and musical personalities becomes clear.

"Everything is connected and the universe is actually in your life," he said. "The practice of Buddhism is to support the deepest part of your life, which we call your Buddha nature. For you to experience what we call a human revolution, steps need to be taken to remove the things that filter you from being able to reveal your true self. And that true self is one that relates in a very deep way to everything else in your environment."

The themes of 'environment' and 'interconnectedness' that he stresses in his faith are also noticeable in his long musical career. By frequently changing his style and collaborating with a wide range of other musicians he has constantly placed himself in new musical environments and made countless connections.

In 1963, jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis sought out the young Hancock and invited him to play in his second great quintet, with Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. When he was fired by Davis in 1969, reportedly for coming back late from his honeymoon, he branched out into writing scores for movies and TV programs, experimented with electronic music, and formed the Headhunters, a jazz-funk fusion outfit. He also formed the VSOP quintet in the mid 1970s with the other former members of the Miles Davis quintet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, to reprise the jazz from earlier in his career.

It is this segment of his rich and varied past that fans can look forward to in October because the quartet comprises three members of the VSOP quintet – Carter, Shorter and Hancock himself. The fourth member is drummer Jack DeJohnette, who was last seen here in May with another jazz keyboard legend, Keith Jarrett.

"As well as we have known each other and recorded with each other, the four of us have never all performed together," Hancock said. "So, I'm pretty sure we won't just play the old pieces. Wayne is a very prolific writer and I wouldn't be surprised if he submits something either from his catalog or something new that we could examine. Perhaps Ron might have something."

On quite a different note, Hancock's next album River will be released the month before the tour. Like his previous studio album Possibilities (2005), it sees Hancock, hook up with a diverse array of collaborators to cover the songs of Joni Mitchell.

With vocals by Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell herself, and instrumental support from Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and Lionel Lueke on guitar, this album typifies Hancock's inclusive and interconnected approach to music. But why do a jazz tribute to the songs of someone who is still principally seen as a 1960s & 1970s pop and folk singer songwriter?

"Because her lyrics are genius," Hancock replied. "They are real poetry. We called it River because it is the name of one her songs, the one that Corinne Bailey Rae does. But 'river' is a metaphor for things flowing. It's very peaceful and calm, but yet there are ripples in it, too; and water also takes the shape of the container that it is in. It doesn't have a specific."

While conventional jazz works from the melody or the vibe of a song, in this case, Hancock and his collaborators used the lyrics as the starting point.

"What I took on as a challenge for this record was the idea of the lyrics being the driving force, the focus for the performances," he explained. "When we first started putting the ideas together for the record, my intention was really to get into the lyrics and find out what they mean, the circumstances under which she wrote them, what provoked her to write a particular song; anything about the inside of a particular song. I had weeks of conversation with the record producer Larry Klein about that, and Larry actually was at one time married to Joni, so he knows a lot about her. When we went to record the tracks, we all had a copy of the lyrics and we sat in the engineer's booth and we discussed the lyrics before we recorded a note. Before every tune, we would have a discussion about the lyrics and then get a sense of our individual take on it, and then we went in and recorded."

Hancock was asked if any of the material from River would surface at the concerts in Japan?
"It might be possible to do one of the pieces," he replied. "It's not that different a band. Wayne Shorter was on the project too, but J. DeJohnette and Ron Carter were not. It's possible that we could do something from that. That is if the guys from the band want to do that."

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
3rd September, 2007
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