June 14, 2024

An Interview With
Herbie Hancock
by Mark Ruffin

Legendary pianist Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell have reunited to produce Hancock’s latest album “Future To Future.” Things have really changed since these two teamed up for “Future Shock” in the 80’s to produce the “Rockit,” unquestionably the biggest hit of Hancock’s career. This time out, it turns out, Hancock, wasn’t looking for a hit, just a way to shake up the jazz world. But isn’t every Herbie Hancock album a way to shake up the jazz world. His all-star “Future To Future,” band is coming to a town near you real soon, but before embarking on his cross-country tour Hancock sat down with our own Mark Ruffin.

JazzUSA: Who are the members of your current touring band?

HH: Terry Lynne Carrington on drums, Wallace Roney on trumpet, Matt Garrison is the bass player, Darryl Diaz is the other keyboard player, and D.J. Disk is the turntablist.

JazzUSA: Is the show kind of straddling both your electric and acoustic worlds?

HH: It is the “Future To Future” band and we’re concentrating on the stuff from the new record, but we’re also doing “Dolphin Dance” which was done back in 60’s before anything electric. I have a completely different arrangement of “Dolphin Dance,” that includes the electric instruments. So I’m doing a combination of things. I’m throwing out the labels and just doing music, and using sound producing devices. Whether they’re electric or acoustic doesn’t really matter, as long as they work.

JazzUSA: Sometimes when you’ve put out records, they’ve been events in jazz, albums that have literally turned the tide in music. “Head Hunters” changed music, “Future Shock,” changed music, not to mention videos, for “The New Standard,” singers are still thanking you today for letting the jazz police accept new songs….

HH: (A Hearty Laugh)

JazzUSA: So, do you see “Future To Future” like that, something that can help change the shape of the music that we’re about to hear?

HH: Well, one of the purposes of doing the record was to open a doorway that could perhaps inspire other musicians to create and open their own doorways to the future. In other words, I’m not interested in copying me, per se, but perhaps I could encourage them to not worry about and get rid of their fears of creating new stuff, and go ahead and let it flow.

JazzUSA: You know, contemporary jazz has been kind of stagnant as a whole, over the last few years. Some people think that the worst thing that could have happened to electric jazz music was smooth jazz. Would you agree with that assessment?

HH: That’s another reason I did this record

JazzUSA: Because hardly anyone is pushing the envelope?

HH: Exactly.

JazzUSA: But, someone who is, is your co-producer on this record Bill Laswell. (Laswell also co-produced “Future Shock.”)

HH: Always. He’s a real visionary.

JazzUSA: His record with Jah Wobble is a smoker, and was on my top ten list last year. Have you heard that record?

HH: No, what’s the name of it?

JazzUSA: It’s Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble and the complete name of the record is “Radio Axiom: A Dub Transmission.”

HH: No, I’ll have to ask him about that one.

JazzUSA: Well, it kind of reminds me of yours actually, and I thought it might have been a source of inspiration.

HH: No, not at all. In fact I haven’t worked with Bill in about ten years, which is why I decoded to work with him now. Because we’re both ten years older than we were the last time we worked together. So, naturally, things have happened our life has made certain developments. And I really wanted to find out where his head was at. What things were real issues with him. Is his head buried in music? Or does he think about social issues and political issues? And knowing Bill Laswell, I knew he thinks beyond music. He also thinks about what’s happening in society and so forth. And so we talked about some of those things. As a matter of fact, we did that for two hours and only talked about music for one hour. But that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to approach this record from the standpoint of a musician. I wanted to approach it from the standpoint of being a human being.

JazzUSA: Are you involved in social issues?

HH: Absolutely. One of my projects is, I have a foundation called the Rhythm of Life Foundation. It’s about technology for humanity, basically. That spawned the Rhythm of Life organization, and that organization’s first major project is one called BAYCAT What it is, is we partnered with the City of San Francisco and another entity, the Manchester Craftsman Guild, more specifically, Bill Strickland, who runs the Manchester Craftsman Guild.

JazzUSA: Right, in Pittsburgh.

HH: You know it?

JazzUSA: Yes, I once spent a weekend there doing a story on English guitarist Martin Taylor. Plus some great records have been made there.

HH: So, you do know the place. Well, Bill Strickland and I got together with Mayor Willie Brown and the guy who is actually the CEO of the Rhythm of Life foundation, because I can’t run it, because I have too many other things to do, with my music career, and so forth. But I’m definitely involved, hands-on involved. A guy named Joseph Mouton is doing that. Anyway, we got together with Willie Brown, and started the BAYCAT project. BAYCAT means Bayview-Hunter’s Point Center of the Arts and Technology. Bayview-Hunter’s Point is a poor area in the San Francisco Bay area. We’re at the point now where we’re shooting for groundbreaking by September.

JazzUSA: It sounds like the Manchester Craftsman Guild West.

HH: Exactly, and Bill is the main focus in the BAY-CAT project. The difference is that there is more of an emphasis on technology in the BAY-CAT than there is in the Manchester Craftsman Guild.

JazzUSA: Herbie, can you tell me about Transparent Music and your involvement?

HH: Yes. It’s a partnership between myself, Chuck Mitchell, who used to run Verve Records, and David Passick, who is my manager. There’s another partner, but he’s not a hands-on person. He’s more of a money person. So, the three of us really run the label. Chuck is really the CEO, the responsible person, who has the expertise in running a label. David Passick, being a manager, but also have been involved in the music business for a number of years, also has a great vision for the music business, and the combination of the business part and the artist, because he is an artist’s manager and he develops artists. Me, as an artist, is interested in creativity.

JazzUSA: So, beside being an artist, what’s your role?

HH: I help in the selection process. I help bring in artists to review their material. I’m involved in the decision making process of how the label develops and the directions it takes, who distributes it. I go to the meetings and I’m one of the decision makers.

JazzUSA: So far, it’s been Mark Whitfield and your record, any others?

HH: Yes, we also have John Fortier, from the Fugees. We have Venencius Quatiaria, he’s from Brazil. We have Bekely, Lamb and Wilson- a guy who was lead singer with the group America, a guy who was lead singer Chicago, and Carl Wilson was with the Beach Boys, but he died. So we have the record that they did. That’s already released. We also have Paul Horn on our label.

JazzUSA: Another musician interested in social issues.

HH: Yep, exactly. We did some remixes of some material that he had done before. The great thing is that he owns all the material that he had done before.

JazzUSA: Wow, even that Columbia stuff?

HH: Maybe I shouldn’t use the word all. Maybe he does own all of it. I know he owns some of it. And we’re able to re-issue those, or re-structure them. He’s very happy to be on the label. Pete Velasco is also on our label.

JazzUSA:: Are you happy to be having your own record company?

HH: Absolutely, because we’re small, so we can move fast. And it’s exciting to be in on the ground floor of a new label. Especially at this time when the music business is in the process of change and a new kind of development , and the use of the new technologies, the Internet and new thinking and development of intellectual properties and so forth. It’s very exciting.

JazzUSA: Will you be with this label, going back and forth between acoustic projects and electric projects? Or like you said earlier, just putting out music?

HH: I’m actually still signed to Verve Records too. So, I have an agreement that I can do some things on Verve and some things on Transparent Music We’re making a distinction between the two, in that, I can do special projects on Transparent Music, whereas kind of the mainstream jazz stuff will be on Verve.

JazzUSA: Is there another record with Wayne Shorter in the offing at all?

HH: We haven’t specifically talked about it, but definitely, there will always be a record with Wayne Shorter in my future.

JazzUSA: How did the first one happen? I know you’ve been great friends for years, did you guys just one day say, lets go in the studio?

HH: We talked about it, and that was one of the ideas that came about. We wanted to explore a new approach to the music, and we thought that it’s gonna be hard enough for just the two of us to do it, without including someone else in the loop. So, let’s do that and then figure out…because we broke a lot of rules. There was a certain degree of spontaneity, but purpose in the different approaches that we used, or different examination we used in making the music on “One + One.” At that point,, we hadn’t figured out how we could translate that to other instruments in a traditional jazz band. Since then, we have been kind of exploring those avenues, although we haven’t really executed them to its fullest extent. Some of that is actually on the live performance on “Future To Future.” One + One” has forever infected what I do.

JazzUSA: How’s that”

HH: The idea of re-examining the convention in jazz was a key element in “One + One.” Tempos for example, why is it on a jazz song, the tempo is always constant. It never speeds up. It never slows down. In classical music, they have soloando, decelandos. Why do we limit ourselves that way? Jazz is supposed to be free. That doesn’t mean every piece has to be done like that, but how about one? (laughs) How about just one piece being done like that? At least. Why is it that the bass player plays all the time, but the other players don’t? And why does the bass player play one note on every beat, except for a few exceptions? Why is it that the drummer never stops? We -examined all of that stuff. And we also decided when we did “One + One,” that we could look at the glass as being half full or half empty. In other words, we could look at it like, here we have a piano and saxophone, which is a jazz group minus the bass player and the drummer. Or we could look at as we have a saxophone and a piano, and we decided we’d look at it like that. In looking at it like that, what are the things we could do because we don’t have a bass player and a drummer, and that’s what we do. You’ll notice that I didn’t try to play bass lines with my bass hands, the way most people have done in the past. If I wanted to do that, why not have a bass player? What’s the point? To just show off, my bass playing chops, , like conceptually. But we decided not to do that.

JazzUSA: Were you surprised at how successful it was?

HH: No, because I don’t think about it, whether it’s going to be successful or not. I do know that Wayne and I both have very good reputations. And that we have an installed base of fans that would probably buy our records, and I thought that they’d be interested in a record like that.