Herbie Hancock plays musical envoy to a tense world

Updated: 2011-02-12 16:02


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LOS ANGELES  – Jazz giant Herbie Hancock played last month for Chinese President Hu Jintao at the White House state dinner and might have done a little something to smooth those tense U.S.-China relations.

While he and other artists performed their program, including Hancock's famous 1962 piece "Watermelon Man," the atmosphere warmed up.

"There was magic in the air and smiles on everyone's faces. I could see that President Hu also had this radiant kind of smile that wasn't there before we played our music," the prolific 70-year-old pianist told Reuters in an interview.

Sitting in his Los Angeles home, his piano in one corner, a deaf cat named Beethoven in the other, Hancock says he tries to stay tuned in to world events, watching news when he's not working on his music. It is not surprising, then, that inspiration for his latest album "The Imagine Project" came from watching the economic crisis unfold around the world.

The crisis told him that globalization was not going away and that his task as a musician was to find a way to promote it as something that is good and that works.

"It was a no-brainer, because of the way music works, when you collaborate with others, you don't think about what country they came from," said Hancock.

"So I said 'Why don't I do a record about global collaboration that is about peace?'"

The result is a world tour of music, artists and arrangements all captured in a variety of studios, from Sao Paulo to Paris to Hollywood.

The album starts with a version of John Lennon's "Imagine" sung first by P!NK and Seal before melding into African rhythms and voices, with Hancock's signature piano improvisation threading its way through the piece.

Another track "Tamatant Tilay/Exodus" combines the work of Tuareg musicians from Mali and late reggae legend Bob Marley with the voices of the Los Angeles Chicano group Los Lobos.


Somehow, "The Imagine Project" flows naturally through seven different languages and 11 countries. But Hancock confesses that there were many obstacles in the project that he overcame with the help of his practice of Buddhism.

The album, the first on his own Hancock Records label, is up for three Grammys at next Sunday's awards and is his first effort since he was the surprise Grammy winner for Album of the Year in 2008 with "River: The Joni Letters." (That Grammy is the most coveted of the 12 in his house and is even placed in front of his Oscar for the score of "'Round Midnight.")

When many artists might be slowing down, Hancock keeps moving in new directions, like running his own record label after years recording for storied companies like Blue Note.

Hancock wants to play more classical music concerts, but he is also creative chair for jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He will open the L.A. Phil's 2011/12 season with its young conductor Gustavo Dudamel in an all-Gershwin program including Hancock playing "Rhapsody in Blue."

Some of his fans may long for the days when Hancock was a mainstay of acoustic jazz, playing with Miles Davis and composing standards like "Cantaloupe Island."

But try telling Herbie Hancock what he should be playing. After all, this is the guy who did "Rockit," the 1983 hit single that had some of the first "scratching" and helped bring an underground movement known as hip-hop to the surface.

"I did get a lot of flak from certain people in the media about selling out, that they preferred the more traditional acoustic jazz I had done in the '60s and early '70s," said Hancock.

"But people now know that I am not someone you can pin down to just do what I'm told. I like to do a variety of things and I like to do what is in my heart."


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