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Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock and his Korg Kronos

Herbie Hancock

Few can be called legends and continue to amaze us with their insightful and fresh creativity. But Herbie Hancock is one of those few, and if anyone can bring musical exploration to uncharted territory, he’s the guy. A pianist since age seven, Herbie admits to being a “gadget freak,” and has simultaneously embraced jazz, funk, and avant-garde electronic music creation while still fulfilling the inclination to make an acoustic journey in between those electric efforts.

What keeps the steps of this musical giant as nimble as ever? We had the rare opportunity to sit down with Herbie and ask him just that question. He talked about his latest release, Possibilities, and how the new Korg OASYS was perfect for that project. As he put it, “I think the OASYS has the flexibility to cover so many sounds, and I’ve just begun to explore it. I can tell you this – whatever you need, I know you’ll find it on the OASYS!!” Plus, he let us in on his thoughts on music creation, the state of music distribution and more. Read on…

You recently celebrated your 65th birthday and you’re busy beyond belief. What’s motivating your hectic activities?
Curiosity, you know. It’s always been like that. Maybe the older I get, the more curious I get about trying new things. About coming up with new ideas to expand myself and to expand my understanding of what I can do to actively work toward improving myself and improving the world that I live in.

How do you shift gears, or prepare for such diverse projects, moving from jazz, to funk, to pop?
Well, I think of myself as being a human being first, rather than being a musician. So, being a musician is more of something I do, not something that I am. For me, it’s not really shifting gears; it’s grabbing a different part of what it is that I do. I have been interested in science ever since I was a little kid, and that’s not going to go away just because I am playing acoustic piano. I’ve been interested in music since I was a little kid, and I played acoustic piano. I played classical music since I was seven years old. But not so much after college.

Did college burn you out from that?
Nah, I just became more interested in playing jazz. That functioned like a magnet and pulled me.

Do you find you need to rest, and recharge the creative juices in between such diverse projects?
I try to recharge every day, by practicing Buddhism, which I have been doing for about 33 years now.

Do you ever sit home and play piano for yourself?
Never! (laughing) It’s funny. Every once in a while, I’ll sit down to play, but there’s nobody to play for! It seems ridiculous to me to play for myself. I used to do that years ago, but I’ve been playing for so many years now. Just for the enjoyment of playing for myself? Nah, Nah! Somehow, that doesn’t work for me.

You’ve worked with a wide range of legendary players over your career. Can you mark some personal musical highlights from the past?
Oh, yeah. I guess first on the list would be when I worked for Miles Davis for 5 1/2 years from 1963-1968. That was incredible. Actually, I worked with him after that, but I wasn’t in his band anymore. I did a few more recordings with him, subsequent to that time.

Also, doing movie scores, that’s been a special kind of thrill for me. I’ve learned a lot doing scores, which I have applied to my piano playing and my arranging. It really has helped to expand my understanding of what different devices, even simple devices, can be used to generate some kind of drama and interest and dynamics.

It must be very fulfilling to see a whole project come together.
Oh yeah. I remember working on one movie score, Death Wish, and actually, it was the last time that I not only composed the music, but also orchestrated all the music myself. I didn’t hire an outside orchestrator. Everybody told me, ‘You don’t do it that way! It’s too hard, it’s too much work.’ I said, ‘No, I wanna do it, I wanna do it!’ So I did it. And that was the last time because it was pretty hard. We recorded the music at the studio, and one song in particular that was kind of the love theme in the film, the director, when he heard it, I was in the booth during the playback. He grabbed his heart and was like, ‘Oh. Oh!’ And he loved it. I was thrilled that he really enjoyed it. It was Michael Winter. Anyway after I finished that project, I remember coming home and crying because I did it. I completed it. I orchestrated it, and I was happy because that meant that I did everything I wanted to accomplish. And then I took a big vacation afterwards…I went to Bali.

On the other end of the spectrum, is there anybody that you wished that you would work with or any projects that you’ve wanted to do?
I always come out with ideas of people I would like to work with. I’ve got a new record that’s coming out now that is an example of that. That record is called Possibilities, and it’s a series of collaborations with several artists. Artists that I respect. And I thought that it might be interesting to see what would happen if we got together and collaborated on some ideas and put some things together. Who knew what would happen? It was, again, my curiosity. To name a few of them, I got a chance to do something with John Mayer, with Sting, Carlos Santana, Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, and many, many others.

How do you select the people to collaborate with? Was there any criteria, or common thread that you thought of consciously for the collaborations?
Well, these are people, again, whose music I respect and I like and I think are really talented. The idea that I had is that often when artists become popular, they are pigeonholed into whatever kind of music, whatever style, aspect, made them popular. And so the tendency for the industry is the have them crank that out. And so they get put into this pigeonhole. And I thought as a jazz player, I have a lot of freedom to kind of do what I want. Of course, a lot of times, I have had to create that freedom by doing what I want anyway, in spite of the naysayers and some of the desires of the industry people, and I have been able to make it work.

A lot of the people in the pop field don’t really get a chance to do that. Very often they are young and they don’t even get the chance to have the question pop into their heads. Sometimes they do. For example, John Mayer. He is a great rhythm guitar player and I found out, a great soloist, too. People know him primarily for his singing. But he considers himself a guitar player that sings.

Anyway, the basic idea was, what would happen if I get together with these different artists? What could we come up with that is a result of bringing my experience to the table and then bringing their experience, their freshness, their style – whatever it is that has been unexplored, that they are capable of creating? I thought that this would automatically lead to something that was out of the box, out of the pigeonhole. And somehow it has turned out that way. People ask me, what kind of record is it? Is it a jazz record? No. Is it a pop record? Yes and no. Actually yes and no to both, jazz and pop. It probably fits within the jazz/pop realms. It can’t really be classified. You know what I call it? Music! And that’s what I was going for – music that doesn’t automatically fit into this category or that category. I wanted something that just works for the heart.

One of the nice things about Possibilities is that it really embodies what people call the “iPod Shuffle generation.” It really sounds like a compilation of different music – different tracks with each one totally different from the next. There is a thread that connects it; I guess that thread is me. My palette is pretty broad, so it covers a lot of territory. So, when you listen to it, you go from one track to the next, the tracks are decidedly different from each other.

Was there much pre-production involved before going into the studio?
Sometimes when we got into the studio there was a germ of an idea, and we just kind of talked things out and worked on things. Sometimes there was a song that was decided upon, but we still worked the arrangement out in the studio. I didn’t come with charts already finished and already done, because I wanted the collaboration done between not only myself and the principle artist – because it’s not just two people working together. There’s also a drummer and a bass player and guitar players, and other musicians like percussionists, that are working together in the studio. And I wanted us all to be able to combine our efforts for this project, so that it comes out as a by-product of each individual and what they have to offer to the songs. It really worked out great.

The other thing I did was, well, I didn’t just walk into the studio and be like, ‘OK! Let’s do tune number one!’ I didn’t do that. A lot of the time we walked into the studio, and while the engineers were getting their sound together, I would have conversations. For example, with Annie Lenox, we would just start talking, about anything from politics to religion to social consciousness, and ideas about society, about human rights, about civil rights, about the planet, about the environment, about how we are as a person…

So you kind of got a vibe from them as a person?
Exactly! That’s really what I wanted. At the end you kind of have a common ground of your own humanity to work from. See, I wasn’t interested, nor am I interested now, in just making music. I am interested in the human spirit being involved. How people feel about life. I want life to be in the music.

And that’s why I like the new Korg OASYS. It is a great keyboard and it has so much flexibility. If there’s an idea that you want to work on, it’s easy to kind of grab things. The categories are all lined up on tabs on the left side of the monitor. On the bottom, you’ve got these other tabs for whatever sound that you want, the degree or pathways of the creation of a sound or modification of the sound, and how it comes out of the output. It’s so user-friendly. Of course, if you really want to get inside the instrument, you have to read the manual. But you can just start playing around with it and come up with all sorts of creative things without having to crack the book.

The first time I took the OASYS on the road, it had come out just a matter of weeks before I actually pulled it out of the case for the rehearsal. John Mayer was working with me with a group I put together called Headhunters ‘05. So first thing John Mayer says to me was, ‘Oh! Guess what? I just got a Korg OASYS!’ (laughing) and I said, ‘Oh really?’ And I just kind of kept things to myself that I already had one, you know, and he was just raving about it. And I said, ‘Oh, guess what? There’s one in the case over here! I brought it!’ He said, ‘Oh, great!’ He had just bought his, and he thought it was fantastic!

So what was your first reaction when you turned the OASYS on? What did you say to yourself?
I said, ‘Why’s it so expensive?’ (laughing)

But then, you played it…
You know what? I totally understand now. I’m a convert. It’s a real complete workstation. It’s got a hard drive inside. It’s got a CD burner, there’s so much flexibility involved. Several outputs – not only just left and right stereo. And several inputs. You can actual input certain types of sound from external devices and do certain types of modifications inside the OASYS for those sounds. There are samples inside. There are several technologies. The KARMA capabilities that Korg also makes are built in already. It’s just got an incredible engine for not only the present, but it’s also pre-built for the future. With the open architecture, when new things develop, you can just kind of plug them in and you can update it to whatever the new developments are.

Anything in particular that you’re looking forward to using?
Yeah. I’m very much interested in panoramic sound, for example. And being able to output quadraphonic sound or use 7 outputs for 7 speakers. You know, being able to play a combi and having different parts of it come out of those speakers to make that huge, special, three-dimensional sound; the OASYS is really built for that. And I can see that in the future that development is just going to leap further and further.

Tell us more about your reaction to OASYS as an instrument...
First of all, the keyboard feels really good. As a piano player – remember, I started playing piano at seven and didn’t start with synths until I was 33 – the feel and touch of an instrument is first and foremost for me. The feel of the OASYS is just right. I can really control all the sounds and get the dynamic response I want from them easily.

Then there’s the variety of the samples, and sounds onboard. It’s really “soup to nuts.” There are lots of new sounds I’ve never heard before, and way more than I’ll ever have time to explore (laughs)! The traditional sounds are a wonderful selection, the brass plays like the real thing…the vocal samples really impressed me. I’ve recently been getting more into this area using sample libraries, and for performing where I need more all-purpose vocal sounds, not special phrases. The OASYS really covers it for me.

Lemme tell you another thing. I tend to like tender strings sounds, you know? Not the huge strident ensembles, but smaller, lush sounds that can be milked for their expressive quality, and I’ve found a perfect one in the OASYS. Again – as a player I just find that the onboard sounds are just SO playable!

For my lead sounds with the Headhunter’s project I ended up using this sound called Ana/Brass Lead, which I later learned was the AL-1 synth. I just know that it sounded and played just like an analog synth. It was intense without being uncomfortable anywhere in its range, and it just has a real punch to it.

I think the OASYS has the flexibility to cover so many sounds, and I’ve just begun to explore it. I can tell you this – whatever you need I know you’ll find it on the OASYS!!

You have used other Korg instruments over the years, including the Karma…
And the TRITON. Yeah, yeah…a bunch of them.

So what attracts you to that equipment in general, and to Korg, in particular?
One thing is the features of the instrument – I look for useful features. But also even when features don’t appear right away to be as useful, very often after I think about it and mull it over in my head, I can find new uses for some features. Things that I may not have thought of before. And to me, that’s interesting. When an instrument kind of sparks my creative juices, I like that.

And the other thing that’s really important to me is the attitude of the people that work there. It is really great to have people that exhibit their care for not only their product, but also their care for the people that play their product. And their care for a bigger picture – what it can mean for music lovers. That they care about the future development of the music. There are always things that come up, need to be answered, need to be addressed, and I respect a company that works toward addressing those things. Very often, people like to work with the systems that they already have and conflicts come up. The people that work at Korg just have a great attitude, and they’re quick to help you, they jump on things right away to be able to answer the questions that you have.

Speaking of Headhunters, you recently put together Headhunters ’05 and played at the Bonaroo festival.
Yeah, there’s a big festival in Tennessee – a big rock-n-roll festival called the Bonaroo festival. Somehow the managers for my record project were able to make a connection to the people that were making the Bonaroo festival. They came up with several ideas about me participating in that festival. One of them was, in a certain sense, the Headhunters name even today has a certain caché even though a lot of young people weren’t even born yet when the original Headhunters were formed. Some of the songs have been sampled by other artists today, and somehow the name has carried through. Maybe some of their parents have heard of the Headhunters. I don’t know. It’s part of the history of the evolution of jazz and funk, or jazz and pop music. At the time that I created the Headhunters, it was kind of a new idea – combining jazz and funk grooves.

The people that produced the Bonaroo festival thought it might be a good idea to put a new Headhunters group together as Headhunters ‘05. Like a Headhunters for the new millennium. I thought, that’s a cool idea, since it has the connotation of not only Herbie Hancock, acoustic musician, but also Headhunters that have an electric tie in. It overlaps the pop scene and because there’s improvisation, it also overlaps the jam band scene. The jam band concept is a core concept with Bonaroo. The new Headhunters group fits that concept. We played some of the old songs and some of the new things.

We also included John Mayer. He really wanted to do it. He really just wanted to be a member of the band, and not be singled out. That was great; I treated him just like that. Of course, the audience was surprised to see him up there and him really rocking out. He’s terrific! What a great attitude, and he also sang “Stitched Up,” which perhaps will be a single for the new Possibilities CD. It worked out really great. When we performed there, the audience went nuts! They were screaming and they were crying out my name. When we came off the stage, they begged for an encore, even though we were past our allotted time. We got the okay to give them another one.

I actually got a chance to perform there a lot as the first artist in residence for the Bonaroo festival. It was a new idea for them. So, that gave me an opportunity to not only perform with the Headhunters ‘05 group, but also to sit in with other groups. I sat in with Widespread Panic on the last day, which was a lot of fun. I also did a question and answer session with a short performance at the end in one of the tents and a super jam with a quartet some time after that.

How do you feel about the whole music downloading controversy?
Well, the horse is out of the barn now, and you can’t really get it back. I like the idea that people have the capacity for downloading music. All the questions aren’t really answered about what the industry will become as a result of new technologies.

One thing that I am doing to address some of these issues is that I am looking for new partners for record distribution. So, I made a deal with Starbucks to distribute the Possibilities CD. I mean, what a great atmosphere for buying records – being in a Starbucks coffee shop, relaxing, and listening to CDs. They have thousands of stores, but only a handful of records there. They are going to do a big record promotion for this. As far as downloading is concerned, I am hoping that that whole concept will evolve into an atmosphere where people feel comfortable downloading. It’s not going to go away. It’s in transition. Someone has suggested to me recently that the whole idea of free music is not going to go away, either. How the artist is going to be paid is going to have to evolve. I don’t want to divulge too many secrets, but I am on the path to work toward that. But things are going to happen in steps. So I am making the first step which I think can be a great business model for the future or for the new record industry.

What about Artist Share?
Oh, Artist Share? Absolutely. I have been talking to Brian Camelio, who started that program for over a year now about the concept. I am very interested in turning my website into a place where people can download music, interviews, lessons, sheet music, and various other things that I may be able to offer. It may even be cups of Starbucks coffee with CD covers of Possibilities on them.

But the other thing that I want to explore is new technology, getting back to the idea of downloading, and bootleg records. It’s the idea of recording all the live concerts and offering the fans that are at the concerts, or perhaps building into the price of the ticket, some avenue so that they can be given a CD when they buy a ticket to the concert.

I am sure people would love that!

Prince did that. What a great idea – it was a genius idea. He gave his CD away at all the concerts. But I am thinking of the idea of recording all the concerts, and maybe each week, from a series of concerts, editing the CD down and selling it the next week. Or giving it away to the fans, and also giving them a way to get it from the website.

Any advice for young musicians?
Yes. First of all, let me say this, it’s really not about the technology. It’s about honesty. It’s really about creating from your heart. Creating from the standpoint of wanting to provide a service for humanity, because you care.

The second thing is to be aware that it’s your humanity that makes the music, not the chops that you have playing an instrument, or how much you technically know about music. Music is about something a lot deeper than that. Music is really supposed to tell a story about life. So, that’s where your humanity is involved. It’s not just going to school and studying music, which is very important and I encourage that, but not keeping your head stuck in just “being a musician.” If you are connected directly to humanity, you can come up with groundbreaking new ideas that are the beginning of a new pathway, not just the continuance of a path that was set by someone else. This way, you can set a path, and that’s important.

Do you feel a need, or desire, to share your knowledge and experience with others?
I hope I’m always a student, but at this point of my life, too, I want to share what I have experienced with others. Because if in some way I can help another human being, then I feel that I am fulfilling my responsibility as a human being.

So what is on the plate for you in the next few months?
What I hope is on this plate is lunch after we get through this interview! (laughing) The new record is being released soon, and I have a lot of promotional things to do for that record.

Also, I have been performing with symphony orchestras over the past few years. I did a CD called Gershwin’s World. So this concept of working with symphony orchestras came as a result from that, because there was orchestral work on it. I hope to develop more orchestral music for the future, for new concerts. But, in addition to that, I’m going to explore the idea of combining some of the new electronic devices and instruments, samplers and so forth, with the acoustic instruments of a symphony orchestra and creating some new music. A whole new design that integrates all those possibilities.

When will Possibilities be released?
August 30th. It will be in Starbucks, but in normal record stores as well. Warner Bros. will be distributing it to what we call the “bricks and mortar” record stores worldwide.

We are looking forward to it!
And we used the OASYS on it, too! We got it just in the nick of time!

Photo Credit: Darren Young