The many faces of jazz legend Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock, artist in residence at the 45th North Sea Jazz Festival, is one of the most original and creative minds of the jazz generation of the 1960s. The American jazz pianist is now 82 years old, but he is back on a summer tour. And that still suits him, grinning relaxed from behind his dark glasses, if we go by the recent images of Glastonbury Festival.

It is not yet known what he will perform at North Sea Jazz. But what is certain is that at his concerts during the three-day festival he is back behind the piano, with a synthesizer to his right. Or we see him soloing on the instrument that only looks good on him: the rather campy white keytar on which he can sometimes improvise very fiercely. A portrait of Herbie Hancock in five parts.

the jazz architect

Song: Maiden Voyage (1965)

The fact that producers, DJs and mixers use his work from the early 1970s, such as the 1983 electronic dance hit ‘Rockit’ from the album Future Shock and the more experimental album Sextant (1973) stimulated him so much that he recorded an entire record in 2001 Future 2 Future based on. He was in his thirties then, he reasoned, and now he was more than twice his age. He found it interesting to make music with musicians who were inspired by his early music. Because what would be his answer to that? ‘Future 2 Future’ in other words: Herbie of today answers Herbie then.

This is Herbie Hancock all the way. “It is precisely in jazz that you have the opportunity to explore unknown areas”, he told in 2005 NRC† As an architect of modern jazz, he has always been ahead of his time. His Blue Note albums Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles set the tone. He made history as the great man behind the experimental, electric music of Miles Davis. And his band Headhunters set the tone in the jazz rock genre.

In purist jazz circles Hancock’s achievements have been followed with suspicion. Especially when he reinvented himself over and over in the 70s and 80s. If he seemed to be following a music trend for a moment, he would suddenly turn again for experiments in rhythm.

“Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer, there is more in you than you realize,” Hancock now advises jazz students in his masterclasses.

the chameleon

Song: ‘Chameleon’ (1973)

A cheerful, swampy bass run to a funky beat. Well, there is immediately movement in the music. Then Hancock’s hands go over his keyboard, while the horn plays the melody. He seeks and finds, but never the same.

A standard has become ‘Chameleon’, just like ‘Watermelon Man’ from his first record Takin’ Off from 1962. And who is not familiar with the funky jazz loop from the piece ‘Cantaloupe Island’ from 1964?

At his concerts it is striking that Hancock attracts a mixed audience of all ages. There are those who got into the jazz rock of the Headhunters, who danced crazy in the club to ‘Rockit’ or fell for him earlier when he played in Miles Davis’ band. Or later, when he flirted with pop (in 1996 he jazzed music by Prince, Peter Gabriel and Nirvana on The New Standard), played intense jazz duets with saxophone buddy Wayne Shorter or performed music by Gershwin with a chamber orchestra and guest singers.

Herbie Hancock with his keytar in the Saturday Night Live Show in 1984 Photo Alan Singer/NBCU PhotoBank

But not everything he made in all his creative restlessness was exciting. From 2000, he was able to go a bit too far: from techno jazz via string jazz to Possibilities, collaborations with stars such as John Mayer and Christina Aguilera in which jazz was subordinate to pop. “Maybe this album may not contain only jazz notes,” he told in 2005 NRC“but the soul is jazz.”

A later tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, he took a more balanced and elegant approach. “I want to attract audiences of all ages,” he recently told The Guardian† For his latest album he works with Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. “Musicians of this century,” he calls them. After all, he himself is “of the last century”.

the tech

Song: ‘Dis is Da Drum’ (1994)

Hancock experimented with an arsenal of synthesizers and electronics and that resulted in cool funk jazz. But I’ve also been to a concert where it was impossible to tie a rope. Then with a big grin, Hancock sealed his jazz fusion with kitschy bird sounds, thunderstorms and distorted voices.

Hancock has a great interest in gadgets and, trained as a technician and engineer, follows studio technology closely. In 2011 he left for music project Future 2 Future in concert halls there are loudspeakers everywhere, like a mega dolby surround system. For his album leaning against acid jazz This is Da Drum (1993) he planned to record the music through five channels. The music all over youhe hoped. His label didn’t listen to that. In 2019 his wish came true: the reissue of Sextant was in surround sound.

The teacher

Song: ‘River’ (2007)

Whether it’s masterclasses or musicians he takes under his wing, Hancock likes to give easy going through his knowledge. He likes to tell anecdotes at concerts. In 2014, appointed ‘Professor of Poetry’ at Harvard University, he gave the renowned ‘Norton lectures’, six lectures on jazz, ethics, Buddhism and innovation.

At his Herbie Hancock Institute, a non-profit music college known as the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz until 2019, young music students are taught by renowned jazz teachers. The prestigious jazz competition affiliated with the institute now also bears his name.

The Buddhist

Song: ‘Toys’, 1968.

In his book Possibilities Hancock says that after a brilliantly played performance of the song ‘Toys’, bassist Buster Williams led him on the track of meditation. He heard from him about Nichiren Buddhism and the chanting of mantras. Since then, Hancock has meditated twice a day. This gives him life force and feeds his creativity.

Buddhism also helped him through the covid time, he told The Guardian† “I could have started to feel terrible because of what I was missing out on. But, for the first time in fifty years, I ate dinner with my wife every night, slept next to her in my own bed. It was a blessing. I make music, but I am more than a musician.”

Maarten Hogenhuissaxophonist

„I remember when I was 15 years old, I had the album The New Standard from the library when I was just starting to get interested in jazz.

For me, jazz was mainly music to study and analyze, not to listen to on an emotional level. The first time I was touched by a jazz piece was on this album, especially ‘Manhattan (Island of Lights and Love)’, a solo piece by Herbie, was on repeat for a year. It made it clear to me that jazz can touch you directly in the heart.

A lot came together for me in ‘Manhattan’: simple, almost pop melodies, enriched with complex harmonies, played super dynamically.

A perfect interplay of head and heart. It sounds like he is ‘singing’ through his piano. As if the piano is turned into a voice under his fingers.

“Herbie’s versatility and open attitude towards all possible music genres has been an inspiration to me to this day. I would immediately sign up to be such a hip jazz dude at 82!”

Tijn Wybengacomposer, bandleader, pianist

„As a child I got the jazz record Cornbread by Lee Morgan in a Sinterklaas surprise. I didn’t like the fact that my father made fun of my addiction to chocolate spread, but I played that record gray. In the piece ‘Ceora’ Herbie Hancock, then 25 years old, played an amazing intro. He determined the color of that piece with a lot of calm and musicality, it has always stayed with me. I also find it very special how subservient he is on this record. He had already made albums on which he was already much more progressive in sound, such as Inventions and Dimensions. But with Morgan, he wore and listened to what was needed. Then you’re a big one. Especially as a child prodigy who can play anything.

“Like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock is an artist who has changed the music world a few times. He did not dwell on success but continues to innovate. He also used to mess with synthesizers and even the keytar. Now I listen to his work for inspiration before I start composing. What did he do with the rhythm? What chords does he pick? It’s a musical relationship that always continues.”

Tineke Postma saxophonist

“Herbie’s time with Miles Davis is for me the most magical period of his career. With his best friend Wayne Shorter he decided Adam’s Apple (1967) the famous piece ‘Footprints’ for the first time. Later, Herbie also recorded that piece with Miles Davis. I could never have dreamed of playing this piece with Herbie herself at the Kennedy Honors Awards (2018) for Wayne Shorter in Washington DC. Herbie again played such an unparalleled performance on this piece; the hip and always original timbres and melodies in combination with his inimitable timing gave me goosebumps. It was extra impressive that I was standing half a meter away from him. What I also find impressive besides his playing is his positive, energetic and modest attitude to life. When you play with him, you feel his love and gratitude for the music and life. You forget for a moment that you are playing with one of the most famous living jazz musicians. He accepts you completely which makes you feel so at ease and thus start playing even more inspired and better. He is a great inspiration and perfect example of how I want to be as a person and a musician.”