The Future suits him
Herbie Hancock continues to explore electronic frontiers
The ever-evolving Herbie Hancock has been tearing down walls between musical genres and experimenting from the get-go of his career.
A multi-Grammy winner, Hancock is a founding father of electronic jazz music, a respected composer and a key member of some classic combos. In 1987 he nabbed an Oscar for his score to 'Round Midnight.'
The storied jazz keyboardist and composer touches down in Portland to play at the Roseland Theater and promote his latest album, 'Future 2 Future.'
The CD is a subtle journey into the heart of electronic music. For it, Hancock reunited with producer and bassist Bill Laswell, with whom he worked on the 1983 album 'Future Shock.' That cross-over album featured the scratch-a-licious hit 'Rockit.' The robotic video that accompanied the song became an MTV staple.
From his home in Los Angeles, Hancock says he's found a host of kindred spirits in the younger artists assembled for this latest album Ñ DJs and mixers such as Rob Swift, Carl Craig, DXT and A Guy Called Gerald.
'They are very open and very É interested in exploring,' Hancock says. 'And I, you know, I am, too.'
Representing the jazz camp on the album are veteran musicians such as bassist Charnett Moffett, Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the late drummer Tony Williams, among others.
Contributions in the vocal realm come from R & B singer Chaka Khan on 'The Essence' and a rising new Ethiopian talent named Gigi on 'Kebero.'
'Future 2 Future' combines elements of electronic dance, downtempo and hip-hop, and it is fused in deep feeling. Hancock, a Buddhist, invested the album with messages about consciousness and understanding.
On the second track, 'Wisdom,' a child tells us that wisdom is the future, knowledge is useless without wisdom, and wisdom is the key to understanding the age.
'This Is Rob Swift,' the CD's most immediately catchy track, has long, playful scratches sure to make the dance floor bounce. It features the handiwork of hip-hop DJ Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners, who brings a hiccuping, infectious rhythmic chatter to the dialogue.
On 'The Essence,' funky jazz drumbeats propel stellar vocals by Chaka Khan. Hancock's intuitive keyboard playing connects all of the songs, and in some places African tribal rhythms are interwoven with the latest electronic patterns.
Even with the assistance of several dance-music dynamos on 'Future 2 Future,' Hancock is leery of his chances of homegrown chart success.
Electronic music, he says, 'is slow to catch on in America Ñ but not in Europe and Japan Ñ it's huge there. It's just really difficult to reach people in the U.S. because the radio is so narrow.'
An avowed technophile, Hancock geeks out on tech stuff outside of music, as well.
'I'm totally into it,' he enthuses. 'I have a Trio, and I have a Sony CliŽ' (personal entertainment organizers). Sony makes the CliŽ, and it's wonderful. I also have a dual processor and a 10-gig Power Mac. And I have the new iMac coming tomorrow.'
While Hancock has always looked ahead, at 61, he has also seen a lot.
Born in Chicago in 1940, the young Hancock performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony at age 11. Not long after, he got hooked on jazz piano by listening to the music of George Shearing. But he has retained classical influences through-out his career, most notably referenced on the 1998 album 'Gershwin's World.'
When trumpeter Donald Byrd heard Hancock play in Chicago, he brought him to New York City. Three years later, Hancock joined Miles Davis. He worked with the master trumpet player from 1963 to 1969, recording and touring with the Miles Davis' quintet for such albums as 'My Funny Valentine,' 'Miles Davis in Europe,' 'Miles Smiles' and 'Bitches Brew.'
Portland jazz historian Bob Dietsche, former owner of Djangos, remembers when the area near Memorial Coliseum was a jazz village. That was the period Dietsche considers to be the golden age of Portland jazz Ñ between 1955 and 1965 Ñ when jazz joints and black-owned restaurants and businesses lined North Williams Avenue.
One venue on the east side was the ornate Oriental Theatre. That's where Dietsche heard Herbie Hancock play with the Miles Davis Quintet in 1965.
'It was such a hot time,' the encyclopedic Dietsche recalls. 'The Miles Davis Quintet was probably one of the last acts to play at the Oriental.'
The theater gave way to a parking lot for the Weatherly Building, at the intersection of Southeast Morrison Street and Grand Avenue. It's a bitter reminder of so-called urban renewal.
Hancock eventually struck out on his own, laying down some classic tracks.
Compositions such as 'Watermelon Man,' 'Maiden Voyage,' 'Dolphin Dance' and 'Cantaloupe Island' are examples of what many jazz buffs consider to be pure Herbie Hancock.
In 1973, Hancock dissolved the band that recorded the critically acclaimed 'Speak Like a Child' and concentrated more on electronic effects. He formed a quartet and steered his music in ever new directions. In 1975, he was voted Downbeat magazine's Jazzman of the Year. He even dabbled in disco.
'I was impressed by the commercial success of Donald Byrd,' Hancock was quoted as saying at the time. Byrd, like Hancock, drifted away from bebop jazz to a more popular fusion of jazz and funk.
True to form, the electronic music that Hancock composes these days may leave some of the old guard scratching their heads.
'I'm not saying his technique has regressed,' Dietsche explains, 'but his objective is just so different.'
Hancock singles out the albums that best illustrate the arc of his career.
' 'Maiden Voyage,' for Blue Note Records Ñ before there was even such a thing as electronic music,' he says. 'That kind of represents the Miles Davis years and my time with him.
'Then I'd say an album called 'Crossings' or 'Sextant.' They represent the avant-garde jazz period. And the next one I would say would be 'Head Hunters' for its funk rhythms of the '70s. The fourth one would be 'Future Shock' because at the time, that was the one that really broke it up on the general scene. It brought hip-hop out to the general public.'
Hancock says his recent albums can't be tied to any particular style.
'They were all so different,' he says, 'starting with an album in '95 called 'Dis Is Da Drum.' And 'New Standard' in '96, and 'One Plus One' in '98 and then 'Gershwin's World' Ñ it has classical and R & B.'
'Future 2 Future' is an apt name for the new album, he says: 'It works as the title because it's like, these are the young kids who are making the music of the future Ñ and then there's me in there Ñ meeting certain aspects of myself through them.'