August 7, 2008

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Hancock towers
Loyal to tradition, open to the new things
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

In 2008, Herbie Hancock, almost unexpectedly, won the Grammy for the Album of the Year for his work on River: The Joni Letters, a tribute album to a friend and associate, Joni Mitchell, his 45th studio album. Next Wednesday, Aug. 13, Herbie Hancock, the pianist who got his start working with Miles Davis, and his band will play a show at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, fresh from a European tour, where he was when the did this interview. He’ll play at the Newport Jazz Festival this Sunday, Aug. 10. His backing musicians are Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Dave Holland (bass), Lionel Loueke (guitar), Chris Potter (sax), and guest vocalists Sonya Kitchell and Amy Keys. The musicians vary in age, ranging from under 20 years old to 61.

What’s it like touring in Europe as compared to the United States?
In general, the listeners are more sophisticated and more eager to accept something new. They’re more appreciative of jazz, and they’re more into jazz and more loyal to jazz. They support culture. That’s what I find. You don’t have to be just loud and over the top with stuff.

Why do you think that is?
I think in general there is a more of an emphasis on the value of culture in Europe. We don’t do that in America. They’re taking music out of the schools, practically. There’s no push toward educating our young people about art and about culture. It almost doesn’t exist in America. And I think Europe has an older tradition. Part of that tradition is an emphasis on culture. American tradition is whatever the hell the next thing is. That’s almost like no tradition at all, and no loyalty.

Being from the U.S., do find that you don’t have tradition as well? Is that the reason your music is varied over your career?
That’s being loyal to music. It’s a way of being loyal to music and not limiting oneself to the easy road — your comfort zone. It could be a manifestation of what I was talking about, but in a good way though.

You have a very diverse band line-up. Some young, some older, as well as West African influence.
For one thing, we learn from each other. I partly looked for non-jazz singers because I wanted another kind of approach to what we’re doing. It gives it a capability of having things that are new and interesting in their newness. I like things that stimulate. If you do the same thing, it’s hard to make that stimulating — of course it depends on how you do it.

What are your set lists like of late? How much is the concert focused on River: The Joni Letters?
The business is different. Records don’t support tours anymore. The record business doesn’t really exist as we know it. Records don’t sell very much. It’s getting to the point that the primary source of income is from touring. Be that as it may, we are doing not half of the show, but a good portion of the show is from the River and from Possibilities [his 44th studio album, released in 2005]. We’re calling it the River of Possibilities tour. We have a couple segments that are from those records. I’m also doing some of my older pieces. “Chameleon.” Sometimes I play “Maiden Voyage.” The first thing we open up with is “Actual Proof” from my Thrust CD.

Is there another meaning with the name of the tour?
It was kind of a clever combination of names of my last two records. My business management partner figured that one out. I never really thought beyond that, but it kind of stands for the way I look at things. I’m always looking for new possibilities. The river has to do with flow. I always look for a continuous flow of inspiration and possibilities.

Where is jazz heading?
Because they’re cultural experiences are different, their tastes might be different. What they were brought up listening to is different than what I was brought up. It gives them input in what we do. It can relate to my experience, but it’s not directly from the same experience that I have. That’s the way the planet is, the way the America is: a lot of different people and a lot of different cultures. We manage, not always in the best way, to get along and make it work.

It’s always been eclectic. That what’s keeps jazz alive. Jazz is certainly not like the jazz of the ’20s. It continues to evolve and influence. In the past the influence was almost exclusively American. We’re all immigrants anyways. African influence, European influence. There are now musicians from the Middle East putting a spice in it, Asian musicians who are putting a spice in it. The music now has had this influx of cultural influence. Their output reflects that and their output goes back in to the pot that we call jazz. … I don’t know what the future of music will be, but I imagine it will be much more global.

What’s next?
I’m already putting together the next project for next year. There is a compilation record that Verve [Records] is putting out, but I insist they have something that’s just not another “Best of.” Something that’s newer and something that people haven’t gotten yet. There’s a few projects with Lang Lang. We played “Rhapsody in Blue” for the Grammys. We’re planning on doing something live with orchestras and making a recording too. The other thing is a global project that is really about peace, insuring that we have a sustainable planet, and ending poverty. Using those crises of our time as a focal point that will involve collaboration of musicians from around the world that represent different cultures, past and present, and different languages. Songs may be partially in English and partially in Navajo, for example. That’s what we’re working on now. It’s something I’m really looking forward to putting together.


Herbie Hancock
Where: Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton Beach
When: Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: Start at $35. www.casinoballroom.com, or 929-4100.