Signature Hancock

The jazz pianist and icon lectures, teaches, and performs--for True Believers and neophytes alike.
Writer: 
March 31, 2004

Herbie Hancock uses his hands and feet when he talks. When he says the word guitar, his hands strum an imaginary Fender. When he says record, his finger makes a needle and spins. Meanwhile he paces, gravitating back toward the piano keyboard again and again, though he doesn't touch it. He walks partway around the big Steinway grand. Lightly strokes its raised lid. Sits on the bench. Home base.

They call this a lecture, but it's more like free association, an aural tease. Hancock, after all, is no academic. He's a jazz pianist--perhaps the archetypal jazz pianist. His publicity trumpets him as "a true icon of modern music." At Duke for two days this fall to offer his own brand of lecture, concert, and public master class, he brushes past swarms of True Believers who descend upon him whenever he emerges on campus from a campus doorway.

Being there, doing that: Herbie Hancock

 Being there, doing that: Herbie Hancock

 

Bebop, hard bop, free jazz, modal jazz, fusion, funk, R&B--he's done it all, and some of it he helped invent. In fifty-some years on stage, he's gigged with all the cats from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen Battle. A natural tinkerer, he introduced electronic keyboards and other radical innovations to the jazz mainstream, driving techies crazy at each step by asking the questions they dreaded in the early days: Hey, can this synthesizer thing sample a sound? Could it be portable? Can you make it record and play back? Why not a polyphonic synthesizer so I could play more than one note? The official Herbie Hancock website features a huge section on technology--"immersive mixing," "multi-angle surround sound"--and plentiful links to vendors.

And so perhaps it's only natural that Hancock's visit to campus be co-hosted by the Pratt School of Engineering (along with the Institute of the Arts, the Onstage Committee of the Duke University Union, and the music department). It is engineering dean Kristina Johnson who introduces him at this lecture, held in Reynolds Auditorium on the afternoon of his second day at Duke. She mentions his eight Grammys, his Academy Award, his role in popularizing electronic instruments, and what she calls "the intimate relationship between music and electrical engineering." (The school's namesake, Edmund T. Pratt Jr. B.S.E.E. '47, was, after all, a jazz trumpet player.)

Because Hancock's official bio says he double-majored in music and electrical engineering, Johnson gives The Master a quick engineering test on the formula for resonance, intended to set up a complimentary metaphor--but he blows it, hastening to explain that he was only in a pre-engineering program, and just for a couple of years before deciding on a music-composition major. "Once an E.E., always an E.E.," the dean says brightly, and hands him a Duke cap.

Who is this guy, really? Gone are the bright floral shirts of yesteryear, gone the Afro and the hip goatee that were his signature look in the Sixties. From a distance, with his close-cropped hair and restrained, good-natured demeanor, you think for a second he might be somebody's uncle, the kind of gent who would drive a nice, clean, eight-cylinder Olds and always change the oil on schedule. Yet there's a Puckish gleam in his eye, a carefully controlled perpetual motion in those restless hands. This is not your father's Oldsmobile.

He tells the lecture audience about working on the 1966 soundtrack for Blowup with director Michelangelo Antonioni, one of many mentors. "He knew who all the cats were," Hancock says. "After dinner one night, he said, 'There's no such thing as art: There's only this painting, that film, this music.' It made sense." Hancock leans on the piano again, as though it might vouch for him. "'I just put events together,' Antonioni told me. 'However people interpret it is right.'" Hancock pauses. "My music is the same way."

The truth is that before you get to hear Herbert Jeffrey Hancock whole, before you can really listen with what E. E. Cummings called the "ears of your ears," you have to get past Herbie the Superstar. You've got to recognize that this icon is an iconoclast.

Iconoclasts are nothing if not confident. Responding to a disparaging question about "electronica"--music like techno and trip-hop--he explains, "I don't look at a genre and judge it. I listen to a piece. I don't evaluate things according to whether they 'have soul.' If you decide you want to do music that sounds cold, that's a reflection of our world--it's not good or bad."

In the forefront of world culture, technology, business, and music," exults Hancock's bio. While he's lecturing, his cell phone rings, and this wizard on the forefront of world culture and technology bungles the call, hanging up while trying to answer. Evidently used to this, his daughter calls back. It's her birthday, and soon Hancock has the whole audience singing "Happy Birthday" into his mobile phone. The man sees no difference between improvising on stage and improvising in life.

Despite the hoopla about his cutting-edge work with electronic keyboards, synthesizers, sound sampling, and more, technology clearly delights Hancock as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

He remembers when Miles Davis, with whom he famously played in the Sixties, got him to try the Fender electric piano for the first time: "I could turn up the volume so I could be just as loud as the drummer!" he chortles. After all these years, you still sense his childlike delight in machines, even purely mechanical ones like the Steinway in front of him.

"When you hit this key, there's an incredible series of cause and effect before you hear a sound," he says. "Even though you're so far removed from what's happening, you can have an emotional impact...." He touches a key tenderly, and holds it. "I've been playing since I was seven," he says finally, "and now I'm sixty-three, and it's been a long journey. Synthesizers are really still in their infancy; I can express myself better on this."

Being there, doing that: Herbie Hancock
Being there, doing that: Herbie Hancock

Later that evening, John Brown, visiting director of the Jazz Studies program, welcomes us back to Reynolds for the master class, in which Hancock will publicly critique the performance of local students. "I struggle with how to introduce a person who needs no introduction," he says. "We truly are in the presence of a legend."

"All right!" a voice screams, and the audience erupts with applause. Aficionados abound: teens hoarding the posters they've torn down in the lobby; expressionless men in black dress shirts, black trousers, black shoes. But it's a mixed crowd. The youngest fan present is a little skeptic in a floral T-shirt, very verbal--and she brought coloring books just in case. When Hancock won his last three Grammy Awards for the 1998 album Gershwin's World, she hadn't been born.

The program refers to tonight's intergenerational attraction as "An Open Workshop"; Hancock calls it a "show." The show nominally belongs to the student combos Brown has put together this semester: electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, biomedical engineers, physicists, and chemists who play for fun--and, lest listeners get the wrong impression, a public-policy major, a political science major, and a couple of grad students, including a Ph.D. candidate from the B-school--jamming alongside first-years and alumni who have lingered in the Triangle.

The players launch out, their music pleasant, their solos classic and controlled. The pianist, Jules van Binsbergen, the Fuqua student, watches his own hands intently; all the musicians avoid eye contact. As the horns in their dapper business suits pass calculated riffs forth and back, they could be at a particularly grim job interview instead of wailing for a high-spirited crowd of Herbievores. After a couple of tunes, they stop, and Hancock rises from his seat in the fifth row to mount the stage.

"Look, it's a conversation," Hancock tells the combo with a wave of his hand. "Just because one guy has a solo at the moment doesn't mean the rest of you have to lie back. You could be swapping ideas in the background--a kind of call and response.

"And each of you has an individual story that you're telling with your instrument. What makes a small group fun is when each person is listening to what the other musicians are doing, and asks, What can I do that can have a shape?"

He sits at the keyboard and demonstrates. Suddenly van Binsbergen grins: Those syncopated chords could follow their own imperative and might push the envelope without treading on the saxophone soloist's toes. "The piano," Hancock assures him, "is actually an orchestra. So, hey, you could have a flute line going." His right hand wanders playfully up and up and up the keyboard. (He knows something about orchestras: His first public performance was a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony at age eleven.)

Now the bass player is grinning, too, and he plucks experimentally as Hancock tries a countermelody. The Master turns to the drummer. "Things can happen in those little stops," he tells him. "You're so polite. Don't always wait for the end of the phrase--give the soloist a little kick in the behind!"

The group takes up Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," and, sure enough, the drummer gives the bass an aural kick in the behind during his solo. The bass player smiles angelically. Van Binsbergen and trumpeter Roger Diebold, a Pratt School sophomore, listen to each other more closely now, teasing and tossing each other intervals, rhythms: copying, varying, daring. A game of tag gets going; people nod. When they finish, Hancock jumps up. "That trumpet solo was great--it had a storyline! That's hard to do--make a complete statement instead of just following the changes."

The changes are the harmonic progression, a song's structural skeleton, and every jazz improviser first learns how to follow them intelligently before learning how to subvert them creatively. Miles Davis long ago had advised Hancock to avoid the "butter notes"--the fat, obvious tones such as the third or seventh of the chord. The result: One listener likened a Hancock accompaniment of a Miles Davis trumpet solo to hearing a double concerto--two melodic lines intertwined in an aural double-helix.

Later, Hancock bluntly tells another student pianist, freshman Pulsar Li, that his accompanying skills need work. "You play a lot of roots"--the bottom note of the chord--"but the bass is already doing that stuff. The things you put in your right hand you could put in your left, and do different things with your right, for color." In some of his recordings, Hancock favored right-hand improvisations so strongly that he eliminated the left hand on solos, leaving the rhythm section to take care of infrastructure.

He tells saxophonist Eric Diebold, a Pratt School senior, "You're ready for Jazz 102," then plops down and works out an example from Sonny Rollins' "Doxy," which they have just performed. "Instead of C7 going to G7, I played C-sharp minor," Hancock says. "You can do that! It sounds dissonant, but because it resolves to the same place...." He plays it, and Diebold nods. "And here, if you start from a B-flat 7th chord, go up a minor third, up a minor third, up a minor third--the roots all relate to each other."

But he turns and apologizes, first to the players, then the audience. "I was just talking about technique. That's craft. I don't want to leave you with craft. I want to leave you with feeling." He gropes for another way to say it. "Music is not about music. Music is about life. Yeah, right now you got to learn the mechanics. There's a thing called scales that go with certain chords. Sometimes there's a tendency for musicians to surround themselves with music and have that be the center of their life. But your life is about more than music."

To trombonist Jillian Smith, a freshman: "You're also someone's daughter, friend, maybe one day a mother. Bring that to your playing. The goal is to make magic happen--magic that instills hope--and build something in this strange but common language we call music."

The crowd turns pensive, thoughtful, silent..

Jamming: Hancock, above, takes over at the the keyboard to demonstrate a point

 Jamming: Hancock, above, takes over at the the keyboard to demonstrate a point

 

The night before, when Hancock's own combo took the stage by storm, it was anything but. In front of an audience of graying hipsters in dashikis, pasty-faced preppies in rugby shirts, earnest black guys in white, earnest white guys in black, music faculty members, townies, and students, Hancock and his acoustic quartet played to a packed and noisily happy Page Auditorium.

It starts like this: Hancock reminisces about a 1996 gig in India when time stopped as he fell off a nine-foot platform. "Never did get to see the Taj," he reflects sadly. "Had to go to the hospital." You can tell the idea of stopping time appeals to him.

Behind him, a thin, young African American rests his hand on a tenor sax, impassive; a bald, lanky, middle-aged bassist dons his steel specs to check a chord progression on a scrap of paper. The drummer, a woman with the high forehead of a deep thinker (later you find out she received a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music--at age eleven), smiles at the boss when he warns, "We're going to do a lot of crazy things over the next hour and a half. Improvisation doesn't always stick to the clocks that we humans have set."

The group prepares to begin with Cole Porter's "I Love You," after one further admonition from Hancock, who tells the audience, chuckling, "We doctored it up and changed it a bit. You're going to get it our way."

A ribbon of song peels off the tenor sax, then a piano riff and an accelerando, and they hit their groove, zero to sixty in five seconds. On the piano solo, the sax man wanders off into the darkness, and Hancock sits coolly, his hands not rising far, his feet pumping without ostentation. There are funny moments of walking bass and broken octaves reminiscent of W.C. Handy (sometimes he does use that left hand after all), now and then a flash of Bill Evans.

Yet the music is anything but allusive; melodies get only a pro forma nod. The tenor reappears from the darkness of the wings, and the combo ramps from straight ahead to edgy. Competing for our attention with the soloist, Hancock bursts into jagged chords, then just as suddenly lays out. A performer moans; the bass explores a dampened pizzicato against the short sharp prick of the snare drum, the muffled whoop of the high-hat, the punctus of the bell. Back again, the piano inserts vertical bursts of phrase, takes over, toys with the drum set like a cat working a mouse, mocks the sax as they jointly search for a single note, the accent that says it all. They find it, and Hancock shouts "Yeah!" on a falling cadence, drawing out the note.

Then they are on fire, wrapping us in sheet after sheet of frantic sound, the bassist dancing with his instrument--or rather dancing around it, as if it were a maypole and he a Dionysian reveler. Now Hancock's shoulders are writhing in time to the music, on the off beats, and we're getting a tour de force--100 years of jazz history compressed into a single tune, and that tune is compressed into a single barbaric utterance, a short sharp bark that somehow relaxes into a balladic stanza, eerie as the lights go from blue to pomegranate red. And the song ends.

Herbie Hancock laughs gleefully. Afterward someone in the lobby remarks, "Could you believe how quiet his hands were?"

Jazz," he tells the master class the next day, "is about trying to make everyone sound as good as they can. As a pianist, my job is to make them sound better--it's not about competition but teamwork. As time goes on, I find myself less judgmental about other members of the band. Whatever somebody else plays, you try to make it sound right."

He surveys the young musicians. "The less judgmental we become, the freer we become." Beat. "But this is your stage, not mine."

Abruptly, he exits.

Baerman M.B.A. '90, special assistant to the president, studied oboe at the Eastman School of Music.