From the time the tentacles of a song first start wrapping themselves around Herbie Hancock's head, it's clear to him who's the master. "At a certain point, the music begins to take on a life of its own," Hancock said last week from his headquarters in L.A. He says he used to make the mistake of trying to make it fit into what he originally had in mind, but learned through experience that doesn't work. "If it starts telling you what it wants to be, you better listen," he chuckles. "Because it's natural and it comes from your soul, your convictions; comes from who and what you are, so that's your truth."
Hancock's truth became self-evident on his '73 crossover record Headhunters. The breakout single "Chameleon" introduced a mainstream audience to funk, changing the face and direction of jazz as well.
The jazz world had known of Hancock's formidable presence for more than a decade prior to Headhunters. "Watermelon Man," from his '63 debut Takin' Off, got Hancock his first acclaim outside the jazz world, and his association with Miles Davis starting that same year earned him icon stature in that world as well. During his five years with the Miles Davis Quintet, Hancock was involved in putting out a series of groundbreaking jazz records including Nefertiti and Sorcerer. After leaving Davis' group, he contributed to and appeared on Miles' classic jazz/fusion record, Bitches Brew. Davis said in his autobiography that Hancock was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. "I haven't heard anybody yet who has come after him."
But even as early as Headhunters, Hancock was discovering that the music would have its own way. "It kind of evolved into this mixture of jazz and funk that wasn't exactly what I had in mind at first," the keyboardist says. "I hadn't really heard that before." The closest thing to it was what his old employer, trumpeter Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds had been doing in the '70s, when funk was in its infancy and fusion was a pipewelders' term. But that pre-funk jazz fusion was not exactly what Headhunters turned out to be. Hancock says he liked it because it was much more original than if he had done a funk album. "It was much more of a stamp of me and the Headhunters band than a copy of what other people were already doing."
But even though some of his work don't turn out like he had intended doesn't mean Hancock didn't have a design for them. 1996's New Standard adapted R&B tunes, including The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," to a jazz format. But as far as an update, Hancock applies the "been there done that" theory. "What I've been doing since that record is to make every record different from every other one," he says laughing. "I'm doing this as a challenge to myself, but also to stand up for something I firmly believe in, and that is there's an infinite way to do things."
Hancock set out to prove that theory on his upcoming record, due out in October. It's based loosely on the template of something he's done before. He says he prefers to do things with no template -- "That's harder, and I like the challenge of doing things the hard way, which is kinda stupid," he laughs -- but is doing a record now based on Joni Mitchell's world that there's been a template for.
1998's Gershwin's World concentrated not only on Gershwin himself, but the world that he lived in and the music he was surrounded by. "That's why there's a Duke Ellington tune on it, because it's based off of rhythm changes, which is 'I Got Rhythm.' And there's a Ravel piece because Ravel and Gershwin were friends and they influenced each other." Mitchell also appeared on the record.
Most of the songs are Joni Mitchell's songs, but there will be some songs associated with music or artists that either influenced Mitchell or that she influenced one way or the other. "That's why I'm saying it's not a complete template," Hancock says. "The challenge is, how am I going to realize each piece? How is that going to be described?"
Hancock says he tries to be aware that the music is not the end, it's the means. "What it's all about is life." He believes there's a bigger picture out there than the musicians -- it's all about the people who are gonna buy the record. "What is it that you want to share with them? Is it just that you know some nice pretty chords? What's the overview you have that is a life message that you might want to share with other people?"
If you think all this sounds vaguely Eastern, you'd be right on target. "I've been practicing Buddhism for 35 years now," Hancock confesses. "And a lot of what I do has the realizations that have come about through my practice of Buddhism, reflect themselves in how I approach music."
Hancock says that to him, music is a vision. He defines that vision as "how to use art and creativity to encourage and inspire encourage inspiration from the listener, encourage them to see something in their own mind that they can feel good about."
But he cautions, it's not all a thought process. Music is just a catalyst. In order to really communicate you need to use another organ. "It's in the heart, not in the brain," Hancock says. "That's where real honesty lies."
Herbie Hancock plays the Neighborhood Theatre on May 27 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65.