MARK MAINZ/AP IMAGES
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.