A Conversation with Herbie Hancock – HuffPost 6.22.10

Mike Ragogna: Your new album The Imagine Project “imagines” unity through music. Can you talk about what your mission is with this new record?

Herbie Hancock: Absolutely. The purpose of the record is peace through global collaboration. I was thinking, first of all, what would even be my reason for wanting to make a record? What I wanted to do was to have as its purpose an issue of today. I started thinking about the most pressing and prevalent issue, and that is the economic meltdown that happened. It’s an example of globalization that, I believe, has hit the average American for the first time.

MR: Yes, although other economically challenging times could be blamed on the growing globalization that wasn’t as obvious in the past.

HH: We weren’t as aware of global repercussions back in those days as we are today. So, that pointed out to me this whole idea of globalization. It’s here, it’s not something that is off in the future. It’s here and has been for a while, we just didn’t become personally aware of it until we got hit with this issue with the banks and what we saw on television in real time, and how the economies of other countries were failing as the result.

MR: I guess it’s because Americans never really felt the interconnectedness until it actually hit them in the wallet.

HH: Right. Exactly, exactly. And the whole idea of banks being too big to fail were the cause of the global impact. So, that was the first thing I was looking at, and I am also aware of the idea that immigration is such a huge issue today. After the record was completed, this whole thing started happening in Arizona, and some other states are coming on board with that idea. It is sort of tightening our belts and putting walls around us to protect us, like shutting out the foreigners, that kind of concept.

MR: Despite all the progress we seem to be making as a culture, isn’t it amazing how polarized we are?

HH: I think that, in a sense, one begets the other. When we take three steps forward, we take two steps backwards. Or another way to look at it is, along with progress, comes problems with decline.

MR: And you need good information in order to solve those problems.

HH: One more thing I wanted to say about that is we were just talking about immigration and keeping out the foreigners because they are taking our jobs or they are not paying taxes or whatever the public thinks is the truth. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t always know the truth. Sometimes the public is being misled with lies and they accept it. And so, consequently, it’s difficult for them to make a real concrete and intelligent decision if the information is wrong.

But the whole idea about keeping immigrants out? Well, if they want to see an immigrant, all they have to do is look in the mirror. They have forgotten this is basically an immigrant country, and we all have ancestors that did not come from this soil. They came from somewhere else. So, what does an American look like? They look Chinese, Indian, African, Swedish, French, Italian, Israeli, Lebanese, you name it. We are from all over the planet. That is what America is.

MR: Let me tie that into The Imagine Project. It’s a mix of various styles that includes jazz, world music, and even a soulful blues like on your cover of Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain,”…

HH: I feel you have to have a purpose, a direction, a vision, and then its a matter of putting the pieces together. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it is I wanted to address, and why and what the repercussions could possibly be and what the problems could possibly be. But still, I couldn’t predict everything. There is no way to predict what it’s going to sound like when you have a track made with some Indian musicians and then you add some jazz musicians, or what kind of problems likely exist because there may be some musical cultural differences in something as basic as the beat.

MR: And a perfect example of that might be the track “Tamatant Tilay” with Tinariwen, K’Naan, and Los Lobos.

HH: Exactly. So, on that track, we found out that it made more sense to take something that Tinariwen knew already because they are not that familiar with pop songs from America. We had to match them more than they had to match us because they are used to playing together, just themselves, and that’s following anything but people that are used to working together. So, we used that as a foundation. That was a piece that they already knew, they composed it, and we thought that the groove had enough elements in it, and it sounded sort of James Brown-like. It was funky enough that we thought we might be able to put something on top of that.

MR: How did the Marley layer become part of the mix?

HH: It was the producer Larry Klein’s idea, to use that same groove of “Tamatant Tilay” and put it on top of Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”

MR: It was a great blend, really smooth.

HH: I think it worked, and to have Los Lobos do that added a whole other element. There is a whole Mexican element there. It was their idea that, on the chorus going out, to make the statement also in Spanish, which I felt was excellent because it fit in perfectly with the whole idea of the record.

MR: Yeah, one world, one people, ultimately.

HH: Right. We are all one people expressing ourselves in our various ways. We have our commonalities and our differences. Both are being celebrated.

MR: When you look at some of the titles, you might get the impression, “Oh, he’s got a protest album going on,” and I’ll clarify that. Some of your song choices are “Imagine,” “Don’t Give Up,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Exodus,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But how you use those topics is more positive than finger-wagging.

HH: Right. This is not a complaint record, this is a record about hope.

MR: Now, you also include a couple of sambas, one featuring Juanes…

HH: …on “La Tierra.”

MR: And “Tempo De Amor”…

HH: …with Ceu. She is singing in Portuguese.

MR: Baden Powell, the Brazilian guitarist, he wrote that, right?

HH: Yeah, Baden Powell and Vinícius de Moraes.

MR: How did you come across this song?

HH: Well, that was a suggestion of the artist Ceu. She is a young Brazilian singer. We actually went in to record a completely different piece, but we talked about the project and the meaning of the project, and then she suggested doing “Tempo de Amor.” She had two different recordings of it to play for me which I listened to before we came up with ours.

MR: Nice. And “La Tierra” was a really beautiful track. To hear Juanes on anything is terrific.

HH: We had a meeting with him and his manager a few weeks before we recorded it. They were both pretty excited about being able to work on this record, and they were totally in sync with the purpose of it. And that is what he is really all about, bringing people together. We thought that the song “La Tierra” would be perfect.

Actually, I had seen a video on YouTube of Juanes singing that in Havana, Cuba, in front of more than a million people in a plaza there. I noticed in the video, on a big banner behind him, it said, “Paz Sin Fronteras” which means “peace without borders.” I thought that was perfect for this album, so we discussed doing that song which he wrote, and the possibility of having some of the lyrics in English as well as Spanish which we wound up not doing. It sounded so good just being in Spanish. When we tried substituting some of the words in English, it kind of spoiled it.

MR: Your keyboard part is so dense and he fits into the arrangement very tightly, like it’s a spirited conversation between the two of you.

HH: That’s what it felt like. I mean, he really was comfortable with the way I was playing and he responded to it. He made some adjustments and notes that he picked for his melody and his phrasing and so forth to make it freer than the original delivery of the song that I had heard on the YouTube video.

MR: On “Don’t Give Up,” you have John Legend and Pink. To me, that’s the eeriest track since it captures the original Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush vibe. Considering it was centered around hard economic times, unemployment, and low self-esteem, it seems as valid a statement now as it was back in the eighties.

HH: I have always loved that song and everybody I talk to loves that song. It always makes people cry, and using that song was almost an afterthought because we’d recently recorded this track–myself, Jeff Beck, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Tal Wilkenfeld who had been working for a few years now with Jeff Beck. We were in London, and we were going to record a completely different song, but then Jeff’s manager said they decided they wanted to keep that song for Jeff’s own record.

MR: So, how did you end up with “Don’t Give Up” after all?

HH: Larry Klein just kind of pulled that out of a hat. But I didn’t have the lyrics in front of me though I was familiar with the song, but not like completely with every aspect of the verses . So, I wasn’t totally comfortable and neither was Jeff, and we had no guide track at all, so we were starting from scratch.

Later on, Jeff decided that he wanted to be pulled from that one because I think he just remembered how he felt when he first recorded it and he wasn’t that comfortable with it. We took that track–and there were several takes of it–and used the best elements from each of the tapes and made one master take. Then we recorded the rest of the song on top of that.

MR: It’s quite touching.

HH: Ah, thank you.

MR: “Tomorrow Never Knows” was an interesting choice. It was The Beatles meets Herbie Hancock meets Dave Matthews.

HH: Originally, we recorded a completely different song. He just had an idea and he happened to be in San Francisco to play a concert there and he had a couple of days off. So, he offered up one of those days to record. We took this idea and expanded on it, and we had a lot of help from Marcus Miller who played bass and Carter Beauford who played drums. So, we were having a great time. Dave was kind of making up some lyrics as we went along, but when we would listen to the playback tape, he would be sitting in the corner on the floor writing out some real lyrics and putting it all together. Finally, we did the whole thing with the finished lyrics, but months later, Dave decided he needed the song. And we did a lot of work on it.

He decided he wanted to do something completely different, so he submitted “Tomorrow Never Knows.” He did a lot of work on it himself, and when I got a chance to hear what he had done, I said, “Oh, this is great because I have nothing else on the record that is in any way shape or form like this, and the record needs this.” It had that psychedelic element, that techno whatever. There were a lot of things on the record that had a very acoustic, natural sounding foundation, but that one was just totally the opposite. As a matter of fact, when I tried to play acoustic piano on an overdub on that track, I couldn’t find anything that worked. So, I wound up finding a synth sound that had a lot of motion to it. It had a melodic element and some other elements that moved around and that worked. I played very few notes, just long notes while this motion was going on, but it was very much in keeping with the track.

I also had an idea. “Is there an old beat up piano here that I can use?” There was one in the studio, so I used that, and I took spoons and a saucer, and hit the keys and the strings with the saucer and slid them around to get different effects and it worked. Those were some of the elements that were used on that track.

MR: Beautiful. Now, “Imagine” starts off in a very thought-provoking way. This is kind of an abstract question, but in your opinion, what would John Lennon think if he saw what was going on in the world right now? Like, what do you think his place would have been had he still been alive and contributing?

HH: I think he would be doing what he did. He would be right at the forefront of change for the better, at the forefront of writing songs that weren’t just in protest, but about hope. Writing songs that were a call-to-arms for the ordinary person to become proactive in creating the kind of future that we want, creating the kind of globalization that we want our children and children’s children to live in.

MR: A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Joni Mitchell, and during that period, she referred to you often. She adores you.

HH: I adore her too. She is amazing.

MR: In addition to Best Contemporary Jazz Album, your tribute album to her, The Joni Letters, also won a Grammy for Album of the Year which is unheard of for a jazz album. I think the album Getz/Gilberto was the only other jazz album to achieve that.

HH: Well, first of all, she is an amazing poet, and a real philosophical thinker. She is strong and has very strong ideas. Joni is extremely courageous and is not afraid to say what she thinks. She is a very open person, very respectful of human beings, and she doesn’t draw a distinction between the famous or the “ordinary.” She treats people the same, and even though she has her recognition of faults of human beings and idiosyncrasies and quirks and problems that we exhibit that are in many cases our own creation, she still has a basic respect for all human beings on the planet.

And so with that kind of genius going into her work, for me, it was a no-brainer, deciding to do a record of her music because it encompasses so much. Her music is so provocative–the compositions themselves, the arrangements that she made, are all very provocative.

There were two basic elements of jazz that were already there. There is some kind of freedom that was already there. And chromatically, there were elements that leant themselves to the interpretation I admire of musicians who have that foundation in jazz.

MR: Are you still missing Miles?

HH: No.

MR: Why Not?

HH: Because Miles never left.

MR: Never been a better answer.

HH: He may not be physically here, but there is enough of the physical elements that came from him that really give me the feeling that he is still here. He expresses himself through other musicians, like Wayne Shorter, for example, and hopefully through me and the things that I learned from my experience being with him. Of course, Miles touched all of the musicians that worked with him. Those elements are still there. But he knew musicians that he didn’t work with, like Joni Mitchell, for example. She knew Miles, and various musicians from the rock scene had met Miles because he had gotten on that scene from the Isle of Wight. So, in a very real sense, Miles is still here.

MR: How has Herbie Hancock changed the most since “Watermelon Man?”

HH: The biggest change I have made is my realization of who I am. That changed from perceiving myself as Herbie Hancock the musician as opposed to now, perceiving myself as Herbie Hancock the human being who expresses himself sometimes through music. But I also express myself as a father, as a husband, as a citizen, and as a neighbor in various ways. So, I don’t define myself anymore by what I do. I define myself by what I am. What I am as a human being, that which doesn’t separate me from others…it embraces other human beings. That’s the thing that’s common between all of us.

Transcribed by Erika Richards

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