Last year, jazz legend Herbie Hancock hit the studio to record an album of duets called Possibilities with some of today's most respected artists, including Sting, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, and Damien Rice. Considering the fact that this is the keys master who helped Miles Davis create jazz fusion and himself pioneered jazz-funk with his band the Headhunters not to mention his industrial jazz experiments (remember "Rockit"?) it would be easy to say he's got nothing left to prove. But Hancock still has plenty to prove to himself. Possibilities, a documentary covering his experience making the album and his struggles to inspire an end to armed conflict (director Doug Biro calls him "a love bomb"), comes out this week on DVD. Hancock sat down with Outtakes to discuss what motivates him these days, the function of music in society, and his humanity. After all, he is a Buddhist.
Outtakes: It would be easy for you to rest on your laurels. Why did you feel the need to challenge yourself by recording Possibilities?
HH: Well, I never like to do the same thing twice. I always like to come up with something that's new for me, something that's challenging. That's kind of where I live, so to speak. I like it that way.
How familiar were you with the artists you and [producer] Alan Mince chose to collaborate with?
Some artists I was much more familiar with than others. I knew Santana's work very well. I knew Paul Simon's work too, and Sting I knew very well. Of course, I'd heard much of Annie Lennox's stuff. I wasn't as familiar with John Mayer, Joss Stone, or Christina Aguilera, though, because they're newer artists and don't have as many albums out as the others. Raul Midon didn't even have a record out.
How comfortable were you with the ideas brought to the table by these artists?
I'm so used to being outside a box anyway. I'm always trying to work outside the box. I'm always trying to do something different than I've done before. For me, to work in areas that are unfamiliar is familiar to me.
In the film, you specifically say that music is something you do, but you're more interested in improving your life. Do you think a life can be improved through music, though?
Music performs a function. The highest function music can perform is to serve humanity, and that's what I always hope to achieve in some form. It can reflect life, but it in itself is not life. In a sense, you can say it's a tool, though that's kind of a cold way to put it. It's a tool that, in our own human hands and motivated by our hearts, can become something that can encourage others. In many cases, it can be a kind of method to heal.
Where did that philosophy come from?
It comes from my realization that I'm a musician when I'm performing music and thinking about music, but I don't do that 24 hours a day. I'm also a husband, a father, a neighbor, a citizen. I'm an American, I'm an African-American, I'm a Buddhist. These are all aspects of who I am, but the root of that is I'm a human being 24/7, I'm a human being. The other aspects of myself that I demonstrate, like music, depends on the circumstances. But I'm always coming from the fact that I'm a human being. Every day makes a huge difference to me, so I always try to create music from my humanity rather than from my musicianship. And that's what I was trying to accomplish with Possibilities.
You've accomplished so much in your career. Are there any mountains left to climb?
There're plenty of mountains left to climb. I already came up with another idea for my next record that's different from Possibilities. It would be kind of obvious to do a Possibilities 2 now that I've kind of laid out that philosophy/structure. [laughs] But I don't like to do exactly the same thing twice.
Rarely does a doctor of my stature (read: ego) voluntarily admit that he's made a misdiagnosis. It's something I usually reserve for lawsuits. But that's why I'm here today to offer a second opinion on New York City indie rockers Elefant, whom I wrongly diagnosed based on their debut album, Sunshine Makes Me Paranoid. While I stand by my initial findings that the Interpol-inspired band was suffering carbon copy syndrome I was wrong in my prognosis, that this condition was terminal. But just as I was about to suggest pulling the plug, two things happened that changed my mind.
First was Elefant's latest album, The Black Magic Show, which I fully expected would cause slight nausea, if not outright vomiting. The album's first single, "Lolita," has a generic-enough title. Hell, it's beyond generic it's over-the-counter. So I figured the music wouldn't be much better. While "Lolita" didn't exactly jump-start my circulatory system, it does prove that Elefant finally broke from the herd; these aren't the same Cure copycats of two years ago. (The album's healthiest tracks are "Uh Oh Hello" and "Don't Wait.") Curious, I pulled up the band's tour blog and that's when I felt the sting of my error.
In a post dated March 3, bassist Jeff James writes (with spelling and grammar left intact):
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"There is something goin on in Florida. It has become an amazing place for rock bands to come play and i know why. In Florida people dance unselfconciously. They dance and get into it in a way that you would never see in New York or Chicago or LA. Just dancing like a freak without a care in the world, no arms crossed hipsters in sight."
Wow. That's more touching than a tag-team of gynecologists. But there's more. James goes on to add, "One more thing the hipsters don't know, before i go, dancing without trying to look cool is good for the soul. So good for you Florida, we will see you again soon, keep freakin out at shows, you are one of the greats."
Got that, Florida? The next patient who comes to my office complaining of "cultural heat stroke" is not going home with a doctor's note. Maybe it wasn't the sunshine that made the band paranoid it was the soul-eating smog of New York City.
Findings: Oops, my bad. Diagnosis: What? I apologized, didn't I? Treatment: Join the stampede as Elefant performs with Sound Team and Aberdeen City at 10 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at Studio A (60 NE 11th St., Miami). Tickets cost $12. Call 305-358-ROCK, or visit www.studioamiami.com.