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Chameleon: Herbie Hancock Adapts to Lyrics | The Nation

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Chameleon: Herbie Hancock Adapts to Lyrics

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MARK MAINZ/AP IMAGESJoni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock perform in Los Angeles on March 20, 2008

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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Last year, at the fiftieth annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, just when everyone expected Amy Winehouse to slur her way through another acceptance speech via satellite from London, the award for Best Album of the Year went to Herbie Hancock for River: The Joni Letters, a meditation on the music of Joni Mitchell. Hancock, a Nichiren Buddhist, began his acceptance speech with a chant--"Joni Mitchell, Joni Mitchell, Joni Mitchell"--then quickly changed the subject. What he might have gone on to say is that since he first played with Mitchell in 1979, he has always been attuned to what many have called her "weird chords." But he only recently began paying attention to her lyrics, and with River: The Joni Letters, he belatedly began a full examination of her musical soul. The album attempts to call a truce between virtuosity and popularity--between popular taste and taste itself. In Los Angeles, that truce was a victory for jazz: Hancock became just the second jazz musician in Grammy history to receive the Best Album honor. (The first was Stan Getz, who won for Getz/
Gilberto in 1964.) At the Grammy Awards, jazz musicians often ride in the back of the bus: the Best Jazz Album category is typically relegated to a separate B-list ballroom ceremony that isn't televised. At 67, Herbie Hancock, a tireless barrier breaker, had done it again.

Before his acceptance speech, in a duet with the classical pianist Lang Lang, Hancock performed a "Rhapsody in Blue" that segued from a classical stretch into a Gershwinesque improvisation--an approach consistent with a career pattern that started in 1951 when, as an 11-year-old piano prodigy, he played a Mozart movement with Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony. By the time Hancock joined Miles Davis's "second great quintet" in 1963--"Nice touch," rasped the typically laconic Davis to Hancock, which meant "You're in"--his eclecticism was insatiable. As generations have passed and rock 'n' roll, funk and hip-hop have drowned out jazz's place in popular culture, Hancock has been neither ashamed nor abashed to test his formidable chops on the latest musical thing. His dance tunes gyrate with adolescent verve; his commercial instincts are often impeccable and just as often shameless.

During the 1970s Hancock played with the Head Hunters, whose name was a racial epithet flipped into a moniker of pride, a gesture that anticipated hip-hop by more than a decade. Hancock and the band gave the world "Chameleon," a song that still belonged to the discos and the streets long after it was released in 1973. It starts with a Moog bass line that doesn't quit, egged on by funky drumming. Hancock wails on the Fender Rhodes, the ARP, the Hohner clavinet. It took a lot of electronic gear to fill in for a piano. Yet Hancock hadn't abandoned his classical touch: taking a simple musical idea introduced by a single instrument (the Moog bass) that swells into a multi-instrumental crescendo, "Chameleon" is a funked-up "Bolero." Behind it all are the trademark "Herbie chords," adding hints of atonality without abandoning melody, embracing lyricism while eschewing sentimentality. Hancock can invoke Debussy and Ravel in his chord structure and still get funky when the mood strikes. Like the lizard of the tune's title, he is an adaptive creature.

Unlike Miles, who refused to return to acoustic jazz once he left it behind in 1968, Hancock has boomeranged from acoustic piano to the newest synthesizer, from a VSOP gig with his Miles classmates to prospecting for the next electronic hit. He found it in 1983 with "Rockit," a song whose popularity was boosted by a creepy Goldey and Crème video in which Hancock's image is relegated to a television monitor upstaged by mannequin limbs rocking to a simple melody set to an electronic beat, mix-mastered records and all. Paul Simon once sang that every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Very few of them have been jazz musicians. For those of us who got our childhood musical information from early MTV, "Rockit" was a strange introduction to Herbie Hancock, but no less so than seeing River: The Joni Letters steal the spotlight from Amy Winehouse and her beehive nearly twenty-five years later.

Crossing over doesn't always pay off--even for Hancock, jazz's savviest CEO. Jazz, unlike pop, cannot subsist on shamelessness alone, and River: The Joni Letters, while imperfect, is the culmination of an experiment that began with the impeccably flawed The New Standard (1996) and continued with the sumptuous Gershwin's World (1998), a kind of musical purgation. On Gershwin's World, Hancock and his special guests play standards by the title composer along with tunes by Ellington ("Cotton Tail") and James P. Johnson ("Blueberry Rhyme"), among others. Stevie Wonder busts out W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," a thrilling summit meeting between Stevie chords and Herbie chords, and one example of why Gershwin's World is an irresistible and wonderfully unpredictable pairing of musicians and composers. Hancock's rhythms and attacks--how he approaches each note of familiar repertory--are as idiosyncratic as his chords. Gershwin, whose melodies and rhythms jazz musicians love to raid, and who needs no transfiguration, is transfigured nevertheless. Hancock tells all the truth and tells it slant.

Joni Mitchell sings two tracks on Gershwin's World: "The Man I Love" and "Summertime." In both tunes, Hancock's piano lines are so ornate that Mitchell has to land in the few counterintuitive spots left for her. "Someday he'll come along, the man I love," she sensuously rasps, perhaps launching a dart at her sideman. Voice and piano compete for space and find an entente. Hancock had introduced Mitchell to this kind of radical rhythmic and harmonic shake-up in 1987, when he invited her to sing a drastically recast version of "Hejira," which she had first recorded in 1976, as an up-tempo samba for broadcast on a Showtime program he was hosting. She had to just trust the musicians around her, including Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and dive right in; vocalist Bobby McFerrin would be standing by her too, grounding her with every falsetto utterance. Mitchell's performance on Gershwin's World received raves, but it took years until she could bring herself to listen to it; she was stunned that she could channel her inner Billie Holiday in the midst of such dense pianism. Hancock was overwhelmed. He told her she was the best jazz singer alive.

The New Standard is more of a problem, a failed experiment. The album features stellar playing, particularly by Hancock, who on the lead track, Don Henley's "New York Minute," plays with cunning virtuosity, not to disguise his banal source material but just to show off. I can make Don Henley swing! Here he is in double time! Whoooosh! The album's subsequent selections and pairings are equally irresistible and unpredictable, including a delicate, bluesy take on Nirvana's "All Apologies" with guitarist John Scofield strumming electric sitar. Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad, Girl" is reconceived for an extended rumination that includes allusions to Miles's recording of Hancock's "Riot." While the album contains stunning playing--and songs like Wonder's need no help--it's mostly precious. Herbie chords, along with his sweeping cadenzas, stoop to lend credibility to pop songs that don't lend themselves particularly well to the sobriquet "new standards." How clever, how sophisticated; but why?

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