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Herbie Hancock and the importance of reinventing himself

by Oscar Garza and James Kim | The Frame

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Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 24. Herbie Hancock

When he was in his early 20s, Herbie Hancock left college in Iowa and went home to Chicago. Soon, he was playing in Donald Byrd’s band, and that led to a move to New York, where he was invited to join Miles Davis’ quintet.

Since then, Hancock's career has spanned more than half-a-century, marked by his boundless sense of musical curiosity. He’s worked with many jazz greats, and pop artists including Sting and Joni Mitchell.

Now Hancock is working with the producer Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder label is home to some of Los Angeles’ most acclaimed young jazz, hip-hop, and electronica musicians.

The Frame’s Oscar Garza spoke with Herbie Hancock about his long career as a musician, working with Miles Davis and Flying Lotus, and how he's constantly reinvented himself throughout his music career.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

What he learned during his years in the Miles Davis Quintet:

The first thing that I learned was the importance of listening. When we were playing some engagements, I noticed that the way Miles played was very much influenced by what each of the rhythm section was playing. I could tell he was listening to the chords and the rhythms I was playing. I could tell he was listening to Tony Williams on the drums by the kinds of rhythms that Miles played.  

I'm sure that wasn't anything that he was thinking about, but the fact that he was listening and trusting helped not only shape his improvisation, but it made the band feel like one unit, like it was one mind. So when I noticed that Miles was doing that and how great it made everything sound I [thought], That's something that I want to keep. That's something that I want to do

Performing with Miles Davis: 

I was pretty scared of playing with Miles. I was just terrified with trying to keep up. I was 23-years-old. Now I'm 76 and I think about more things that weren't on my radar scope at the time. 

How Hancock went from engineering to jazz musician: 

Both my mother and father said that whatever their children wanted to be when we grew up, they would fully support it — not that they had financial means to support it economically, but they would be in our corner. 

It was a challenge specifically for my mother. When I joined Donald Byrd's band to become a professional jazz musician, I [had been] an engineering major in college for my first two years, and my parents felt very comfortable in knowing that I could get a job as an engineer when I graduated. 

It became very obvious to me at the end of my second year of college that I had no choice, that [jazz] was what I was gonna do, come hell or high water. 

Working with Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, on his album, "You're Dead!": 

I really wanted to be a fly on the wall. In other words, whatever we were doing — if it was going to be for my record or for [Flying Lotus'] record — I wasn't going to impose ideas without first getting the lay of the land. Because I'm working with a younger musician and so many things have changed since I first started recording. 

I know that a lot of young artists are doing different things: the way they use social media; the way they leak parts of tracks out to the public that are unfinished. but it gets an excitement going. That was totally new to me, so I wanted to see how they do things. 

Collaborating with Flying Lotus for Hancock's new album: 

I'm also working with Terrace Martin [who] was one of the primary producers for Kendrick Lamar's album, "To Pimp a Butterfly." That record was very instrumental in crystalizing a direction for the record that I wanted to make. One thing that happened during the different times that I went over to Flying Lotus' house,  he asked me what I had in mind and I didn't really know what I wanted to do for my own record. 

By the way, Thundercat — Stephen Bruner, the wonderful bass player — he also was over at Flying Lotus' house almost all of the days that I went over there. He also had some material and I didn't know if his material was for his record or for it was something that he was bringing over to possibly submit to me. I just went with the flow [laughs], so consequently some of the stuff I did with him and with Flying Lotus wound up being on Flying Lotus' record, "You're Dead!," on the song called "Tesla."  

You know why he called it "Tesla"? Because that's the car I drive, that's my car [laughs], and I showed up at his house with a Tesla and I gave him a ride in it and he loved it. 

How he keeps reinventing himself and his music: 

One of the great stimulations, for me, is hanging out with young people and paying attention to what they're doing. There's a tendency as we get older to feel like we know more than younger people and [that] our job is to teach them what we know. But that is not something that I adhere to. We all have something to bring to the table no matter what our age, and youth today has a lot to bring to the table. 

Performing with his long time creative partner Wayne Shorter: 

Wayne teaches me new tricks every day. He lives about 10 minutes from my house, which is great that we live in close proximity. We are very much are in sync with the way we generally look at the world and look at jazz. 

I may not agree with every aspect of all the assessments that Wayne makes, but to me, Wayne is like Yoda [laughs]. If he opens his mouth, I want everybody else to be quiet and listen. Most people that know Wayne feel the same way because he's brilliant. 

Herbie Hancock performs at the Hollywood Bowl with Wayne Shorter, along with many other artists, at an event called "Mega Nova" on Aug. 24. 

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