Playing it forward: R Sukumar interviews jazz legend Herbie Hancock - Hindustan Times
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Playing it forward: R Sukumar interviews jazz legend Herbie Hancock

Jan 19, 2024 10:49 PM IST

He's unfazed by the potential of AI. Once an engineering student, he has a soft spot for technology. His focus now, he says, is to pass the baton he was handed.

On Monday evening this past week, Martin Luther King Jr Day, a man who released his first solo album (aptly called Takin’ Off) a year before The Beatles had their first release, played in a club in South Delhi.

At the American Center, New Delhi. ‘I was young once, and I made mistakes. But musicians didn’t just put me (down); they showed me how it was done. So now it’s my turn to be the kind of grandfather of the music,’ he says. (HT Photo: Paroma Mukherjee) PREMIUM
At the American Center, New Delhi. ‘I was young once, and I made mistakes. But musicians didn’t just put me (down); they showed me how it was done. So now it’s my turn to be the kind of grandfather of the music,’ he says. (HT Photo: Paroma Mukherjee)

On Tuesday, Herbie Hancock, 83, listened to a bunch of young jazz musicians from Delhi play, a sort of masterclass.

The Monday performance, along with jazz singer Dianne Reeves and performers from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, was to honour King — and it also saw US ambassador to India Eric Garcetti play. (How good is he? Well, Herbie Hancock opened for him.)

Hancock is a young 83; and seems younger when he plays. And he has played with them all. That first solo album came out when he was 22; in 1965-66, he was tapped to do the soundtrack for the cult movie Blow-Up; then he played for a few years in Miles Davis’s band, before becoming a bandleader.

“I feel like what happened when I was young (was) that the older musicians sort of handed me the baton, like in a race. They passed their knowledge and their development…, and I feel like I’m in that position now. That’s why I’m so interested in having this institute, Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, because I get a chance to pass the baton to the younger musicians. Of course, these are not kids anymore. There are Master’s degree college students. But still, I’m always willing to encourage young musicians because I was young once like them, you know, and I know mistakes that I made because I really didn’t know the chord changes for a certain tune, or how the tune was written, as well as I should have. But musicians didn’t just put me (down); they showed me how it was done. So now it’s my turn to be the kind of grandfather of the music.”

Hancock is being modest. He started playing the piano at the age of seven, and was considered a prodigy; he didn’t start playing jazz till he was 14, but eight years later, he had his own album.

“Somehow I made choices that turned out well for me; people liked my music,” he laughs.

What is he listening to now, and what does he like?

“Robert Glasper is one, Kamasi Washington is another. I mean, there’s Terence Blanchard, Elena Pinderhughes. By the way, most of these musicians, I’ve actually performed with them; they’ve gone on tour with me.”

The jazz they play is different from his music, he adds in response to a question, “because they’re not me”. “Each one has their own style and their own choices of who they listen to, what has influenced them. For example, Elena Pinderhughes is a flutist and she’s young, she’s still in her 20s. But she’s an amazing flutist, the best I’ve ever heard. Her talent is incredible. I don’t know how she does what she does on the instrument, but I’ve never heard anybody play like she does. So it’s exciting to see young musicians come up, that have their own sound… have such control over the instrument and create new ways of playing an instrument to get new approaches out of the instrument that they play. Many of them are, especially in jazz, composers themselves.”

Hancock was supposed to release an album with some of his new collaborators, but he isn’t sure when it will come out. “I’ve been working on a new album for at least 10 years now. Some things I started working on, but sometimes change happens so fast. What sounded fine to me when we started on those things, after a couple of years — and I still hadn’t finished it — I didn’t like the arrangements (of) anymore.”

It isn’t easy that there are so many influences now, he adds, speaking of the pace of change, the technology. Hancock has always been interested in technology (and it shows in his music, especially the albums he released through the 1980s). “I was an engineering major in college. And I’ve always loved technology, actually, even before I was interested in music. I always wanted to figure out how things worked, like an alarm clock — what made the hands go around? (This was) when I was five years old. And I didn’t show interest in music until I was seven. But before that, I was always tinkering with things to put things together.”

It will be difficult to adjust to new technology today, he admits. There “are going to be some problems” and we “are going to have to be really careful” but “if we do things right, it’s going to turn out great for everybody.”

“I’m looking forward to the future myself,” Hancock adds.

What if AI were able to create music that sounds just like his? Would he mind then? “No. I would just want to get paid for it.”

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LISTEN: HT’s Herbie Hancock listening list (with a bias towards the older stuff)

Takin’ Off, 1962. The first solo album, and making up the quintet with Hancock are Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins.

Maiden Voyage, 1965. Released at a time when Hancock was also playing in Miles Davis’s band, and the influence is clear.

Head Hunters, 1973. Among the best jazz funk albums ever, featuring perhaps the greatest bass line ever composed — in the opening track, Chameleon.

Blow-Up, 1966. Some people may remember this for Stroll On, only one of the handful of Yardbirds songs featuring both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but Hancock’s swinging soundtrack was the apt background for Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult classic.

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