Herbie Hancock: Blue Chip Keyboardist


In 2008, Herbie Hancock was awarded a Grammy for the Best Album of 2007, the top award in music. It was a remarkable achievement for a jazz musician, equalled only once before – by Stan Getz in 1964. Since joining the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963, Herbie’s career has gone from strength to strength. Unfettered by the need to play in one musical genre, his music has ranged across the whole spectrum of musical styles from pure jazz, through classical forms to disco music, and he is one of the few jazz musicians to achieve success in the pop music charts. Herbie is as much at home on a fine acoustic grand piano as he is when he plays electronic keyboards and synthesisers, on which he has been a major innovator. With his band, the Head Hunters, he led the popularisation of jazz-fusion music and in the early 1980s helped to create hip-hop music. This book describes Herbie Hancock’s career through an examination of his recorded works. It includes a substantial discography and index.

Herbie Hancock: Blue Chip Keyboardist by Ken Trethewey

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The following is an extract from Herbie Hancock: Blue Chip Keyboardist by Ken Trethewey:

Herbie Hancock is an extremely successful, major-league jazz musician who, whilst remaining within the jazz environment has broken out of it frequently enough for him to become a household name. After Davis, Ellington and Armstrong, he is probably the most famous jazz musician of the modern era. There was a good line in unspoken humour associated with Herbie’s cameo appearance as a cocktail lounge pianist in the Robert Redford / Demie Moore movie Indecent Proposal (1993): only someone as rich as John Gage (Redford’s character) could afford Herbie Hancock for a party aboard his private yacht! Despite the fact that his forays into the world of ‘frothy’ popular music made him a wealthy man and attracted the scorn of all those who secretly wished they could do the same but didn’t, Herbie always retained his ‘feets’ in other camps too and was able to produce music of substance in all his ventures. In 1992, referring to Herbie’s risk-taking in pop, Mark Gilbert said, “there is plainly no law of aesthetics which says that financial motive cancels out creativity.” [53]

Herbie is a master of the keyboard in whatever form – electronic or acoustic – and I here nominate him as the best pianist / keyboardist in jazz. There is much justification for that conclusion. First, he is expert in the use of keyboard and computer technology in jazz improvisation, for which he has done as much if not more than anyone else in jazz. Jazz critic Gary Giddins said: “When Herbie discovered electric instruments he was like a kid at the circus. It’s very important to realise that he just doesn’t sit down at a Fender Rhodes (or the more sophisticated versions) and play it. He knows how those things are built from the ground up.” [85]

Herbie is an expert in the use of rhythms of all kinds, but notably funk and African-derived pulses. Julian Joseph believes that you can quickly tell whether a musician is truly funky or not, but that funk simply oozes out of every pore of Herbie’s body. [42]

Herbie is more wide-ranging in his use of different musical styles than almost any other jazz musician. He has never been constrained by musical boundaries, believing that anything is up for grabs. Thus it was fine for him to indulge in frothy popular music, even to the extent that he indecently exposed his own singing voice on albums of popular vocal crossover music, such as Sunlight (1978), Feets Don’t Fail Me Now (1979) and Lite Me Up (1982). Few other serious jazz instrumentalists – only Stanley Clarke and Joe Zawinul spring to mind – have found the courage to indulge in such base behaviour, and he received an equally indecent amount of vitriol from the jazz world as a result. Fortunately, he is a big enough character not to care.

Herbie has always remained true to the legacy of Miles by only looking forward. Whilst being aware and appreciative of his heritage, Herbie has never wanted to reproduce the past. Bertrand Tavernier wrote about Herbie’s ideas for the music to the film Round Midnight (1986) that Herbie was to score. “On my first meeting with Herbie, we immediately agreed on certain principles. We wouldn’t try to duplicate exactly the music of the fifties. ‘Otherwise’, declared Herbie, ‘we might just as well use the Blue Note records’. We wanted to avoid a rigid or scholarly approach to the style.” [86] This principle permeates his style.