Happy Belated Birthday, Herbie Hancock! A Master of All That Jazz

Simply stated, Herbie Hancock is unique. An artist whose stellar reputation extends to both popular and serious realms, he's one of the most proficient jazz musicians of all time and yet also widely heralded in contemporary circles. That's no small achievement, given the fact that few other names come to mind when considering similar circumstances. Sure, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlan managed to win over wider audiences with their jazz/rock fusion, and there are those who actually consider someone like Yanni to be a genuine jazz musician (Yanni... Really?). However, in truth, one would be hard-pressed to name anyone else who has managed to cover so many bases -- serious jazz, bebop, R&B, classical, and pop -- and do it with such aplomb.

Born April 12, 1940, Hancock is well-known for the solo work that won him wide renown -- "Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man," "Maiden Voyage," "Chameleon," and "Rockit," among them. Yet he hit his pinnacle of achievement relatively recently when his 2007 tribute album, River: The Joni Letters, won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album to ever garner that honor.

Hancock started his career in earnest at an early age. He began as a 7-year-old child prodigy who mastered Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 5" by age 11. His big break came in 1963, when he joined Miles Davis' band and became part of an all-star ensemble that also included bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. In time, the quintet came to be regarded as one of the greatest jazz outfits of all time, setting the stage for a crossover success that would win over rock audiences and redefine the essence of jazz as an improvisational medium.

Hancock flourished in that environment, developing a style that placed an emphasis on rhythm, harmony, classical motifs, and wholly unconventional chord structures. 

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As the '60s progressed, so did his proficiency, which found him branching out as both a sideman and solo artist, playing sessions with Shorter, Williams, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and other great players of that period. 

His albums Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965) became two of the most influential jazz LPs of the '60s, winning praise for possessing both innovation and accessibility, with the latter yielding a title track that remains a jazz standard. Hancock also scored his first film -- Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup -- the first of many soundtracks he'd compose and record in the years ahead. Fat Albert Rotunda, his 1969 soundtrack for the Bill Cosby animated children's television show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, helped him take a further leap into the popular mainstream.

Still, it was his work with Miles Davis that made the greatest mark on his career. Although he resisted at first, Hancock began playing electric keyboards as Davis brought his band into modern-rock realms. Soon after, Davis fired Hancock for reasons that seemed somewhat vague, although he later recruited him for three of his most important albums of all time -- In a Silent Way, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and On the Corner.

Hancock signed to Warner Bros. in the early '70s, one of the first jazz artists signed to that predominantly pop label. Meanwhile, his embrace of synthesizers and electronic instruments helped him find favor with prog-rock audiences. Yet most of his music proved too esoteric for mainstream music aficionados... at least until he turned his attention to funk with a best-selling band he called the Headhunters. The band's eponymous debut album proved a major success and brought them a new, youthful following. 

The group recorded several well-received albums, even though they were forced to fend off charges from some quarters that they were selling out. Hancock himself released another successful soundtrack in 1973, this time for the film Death Wish, an effort that further entrenched him in that always-fertile market.

Hancock remained equally prolific throughout the '70s and '80s, forming a band he dubbed V.S.O.P. that featured other alumni from Miles Davis' '60s quintet. Much to the dismay of the critics, his music began evolving into a jazzy pop/disco sound designed to ingratiate himself with more mainstream listeners. Although he would continue to record traditional jazz, he also scored a significant crossover hit with the instrumental "Rockit" in 1983, a song accompanied by an innovative and award-winning MTV video. As the decade went on, he continued to mingle more and more in rock circles, playing on albums by Simple Minds and the Duran Duran offshoot called Arcadia.

His involvement with the pop-music community was further embraced with his 1994 acid-jazz effort Dis Is Da Drum, a contribution to the Red Hot Organization's compilation Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool (heralded as Album of the Year by Time magazine) and his 1995 album The New Standard, which featured an all-star band interpreting material from such disparate sources as Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Prince, and Peter Gabriel.

Hancock's ventures into pop terrain intensified in 2005 with the release of Possibilities, a Grammy-nominated collection of duets with such notables as Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, and Sting. A year later, he contributed to Josh Groban's album Awake and then broadened his populist appeal with a 2005 appearance at Bonnaroo. 

In 2007, his Joni Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters, included cameos from Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and Mitchell herself. And if that isn't enough to convince that Hancock has earned commercial cred, consider this -- one of his most recent efforts includes a collaboration with Kanye West on a track called "RoboCop." One has to be curious if he was able to get a word in edgewise.

It just goes to prove that when it comes to Hancock's handiwork, pop, hip-hop, R&B, and funk are just so many variations of "all that jazz."


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