Herbie Hancock – Reinventing the Wall of Sound

Herbie Hancock – Reinventing the Wall of Sound

WG takes you back, care of Neon Suntan’s interview with the iconic cool composer, Herbie Hancock and his then album, tour and DVD of ‘Future2Future’

“Wait a minute lemme check out the window, yeah the sun is shinin’…it’s nice”

Herbie Hancock on the line, 61 years old with nothing to prove in every word and everything still to do. You won’t find him playing Vegas in a lame suit doing an endless pastiche of ‘greatest hits’ for the cocktail crowd. The man who played a Mozart Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of eleven, who composed the score to Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ and Michael Winner’s ‘Death Wish’ and recorded the awesome ‘Bitches Brew’ with Miles Davis. Even that cursory résumé does not do justice to Herbie Hancock’s career, let alone count the number of groups and performers he has inspired, most notably he played a key part in starting the genre of Electro with ‘Future Shock’ and the unforgettable ‘Rockit’, the ripples of which are still being felt with the Turntablist movement, that is only now making its debt known. “There’s a movie coming out….they ALL said that Rockit was influential, all those guys”, he’s talking about a new documentary featuring a reviled/revered group people known as Turntablists, whose names, Qbert, Rob Swift, DJ Disc may be unfamiliar to you but who all look up to and respect Hancock as one of their progenitors. “It was one of the first tracks to take the underground thing of hip-hop and take it over-ground, I mean there were others but that was one of the first.”

You might be forgiven for thinking that Hancock’s new project ‘Future2Future’ is simply a re-run of Future Shock for the new millennium, with Bill Laswell setting the controls for the heart of Electro. Collaborations with dance music veterans such as Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald & even featuring the original scratch master from Rockit DS.T [now known as DX.T] would add fuel to the fire of a mediocre cash-in album. The truth is anything but; Hancock is hardly down on his luck and in need of a sure-fire hit to pay off an overbearing record company. As recently as 1999 he won three Grammies for his ‘Gershwin’s World’ album featuring Joni Mitchell and Chick Corea; and the new album is released on his own label Transparent, which leaves him free to still record straight(er) smaller group jazz recordings for Verve.

Indeed Transparent Music has some illustrious partners including Hancock’s manager David Passick, former Verve Records president Chuck Mitchell as well as Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, Gerry Beckley of America and Chicago’s Robert Lamm. “with American labels they tend to look at America first  and then the rest of the world second, with Transparent we’re looking at the whole world. We knew that with this album it would be lying outside of the mainstream of what Verve records is all about, and it would be more appropriate on Transparent, where we’re looking to find new technologies to expose quality music.”

Herbie Hancock Future 2 future part1  (live)

The genesis of Future2Future had an inauspicious start, the first stirrings were not even about a new album “Bill Laswell had an idea for project, so he called David Passick, who said what about you collaborating again?” Professional New York undergroundist Laswell, began to describe his concept for the album and about whom he wanted to bring on board. “I didn’t know any of those names, Chaka Khan of course, but no-one else. Bill told me my records were influencing a whole bunch of people. Not so much the funk-jazz but more the avant-garde, prior to Headhunters. ‘Sextant was one he mentioned and a track on there called Hornets.” To complement this Hancock performs a gorgeous re-imagining of this on Future 2Future the eight-minute epic ‘Virtual Hornets’. “A live album I did in Japan  called ‘Dedication’ particularly the track ‘Nobu’ where I had a sequence playing.” Hancock’s keyboard featured a primitive sampler and he performs virtually unaccompanied, much as many DJ’s and electronica performers do now on a regular basis here he was twenty years ahead of the pack. This intelligent approach to new technology, where it serves as means to an end rather than an end in itself or simply a quaint diversion, is characteristic of a great survivor, not just learning but also wanting to adapt to new environments. As far back as 1969’s ‘Miwandishi’ with Dr. Patrick Gleeson on ARP synthesiser Hancock was playing with electronic effects and layers, but always in some form of Jazz context. “We’re talking about the next record being … a remix of some of the tracks from Future 2Future”. The word sits uneasily with him, but knowing what it means his excitement and interest is palpable.

Although his jazz contributors on the album were less certain of the approach, they were no less enthusiastic, “Jack DeJohnette [drums] had no idea how his tracks were going to be used.” However it seems likely that they trusted Hancock’s unerring instinct for technology. Bill Laswell’s studio approach was also different “[We] recorded it in layers. Only the drum and bass were recorded together, everything else was overdubs. Since I talked to him [DeJohnette] he was pleased with what came out, I think it sounds natural, like it’s supposed to be there.”

“Wayne Shorter was one of the last to record and his playing was so magnificent…” comparisons between Shorter and John Coltrane are given short shrift by Hancock, ” he doesn’t sound like ‘Trane, he sounds like himself. If you go into the details of what he’s playing , it’s not the same. I’m talking about the selection of notes . Wayne was not influenced by him, he just plays that way, but they may have been influenced by each other because they were contemporaries and they knew each other, but side-by-side their choices are not the same. They both have an amazing technique but what Wayne plays on my record is not like anyone but himself.”

Hancock’s dedication to his music and his fellow musicians on this album has even extended to beyond the grave, and the late great Tony Williams, “Bill [Laswell] was in conversation with Tony about producing something and together they did this track, but the project never came about. Bill thought it might be appropriate to try it out and I’m glad he did.” Williams died in 1997 and Laswell had kept the track on ice ever since, and the finished piece, titled after the late drummer, features spoken word poetry reminiscent of ’50’s beat-poetry. “Wayne Shorter is just brilliant on it, Dana Bryant’s vocals are just so well done,” a wistful tone comes into his voice, Hancock played on and off with Williams for years and formed a jazz supergroup with him in the form of VSOP, perhaps Future2Future has given him a sense of closure. “It was very moving, Tony was like my best friend, I had to try and not think about the nostalgia, I would have been in tears otherwise. I just tried to deal with the music and it was joy to be able to do that.”

Herbie Hancock Future 2 future part2 (live)

Despite his many approaches and explorations over the years Jazz is still Hancock’s main muse “I would say that this record uses the heart of a jazz influence but in a non traditional way, it’s a very spontaneous record, there’s hardly any pre-conceptions of melody or harmonies which is why it sounds a little quirky.” Warming to his theme he describes a recording style that is a cross between the antithesis of Jazz, overdubs and improvisation: “most of what was done on this record was done reactively I didn’t know what was done before, I would just respond to the track that Bill would play without trying to use my intellectual side with traditional harmonies. I would just listen to what Bill had put on already, and in the case of Carl Craig’s piece [Kebero] he had already done his [harmonic] element, but they were so high  up to me they sounded like locusts! There wasn’t a whole lot to go on only the bass line had been done!”

“Bill arranged the stuff after the fact, building up the layers, so the last thing I would put down would be the solo elements, but sometimes I would do the reverse putting the solo elements down first. Then Bill would cut and paste different parts together, reusing different sections, and I would overdub some other things and he might shift some things around again!”

When he heard the finished pieces “I was ecstatic…” But even during the production of the album Hancock was fed tit-bits “during the [mixing] process he put some of the elements on a CD for me to listen to and it began to sound like something but I wasn’t sure what, because I wasn’t familiar with this new electronic form of music. So I took the CD to a friend of mine who brought me some of the records of these cutting edge people and as soon as I heard that I thought ah-ha, now I see what Bill is talking about. I didn’t try to listen to any more of those things or buy up their records we just went straight ahead and trust Bill’s tastes and I figured between the two of us we’d come up with something, and this album is what we came up with.”

Talk of a live album though and the equipment needed to take the show on the road is where Hancock really comes alive, mentioning a line up that includes bassist Matt Garrison son of legendary John Coltrane bassist Jimmy as well as the multi-talented Terri Lynn Carrington and DJ Disc taking over the turntable responsibilities from Rob Swift. “The live music is very different from the music on the record, the elements are there but we really tried to carry through the concept of spontaneity that was on the record. Things were very flexible.”

“Oh, and I should tell you that we did the whole tour in surround sound stereo side speakers and stereo side speakers as well as stereo front of house speakers. We had two engineers one for front of house and one for surround with a different desk using a joystick so he could move the surround around. So people were experiencing an immersive live environment.” Hancock may no be the first to perform with surround sound but he’s the first to do it on a regular tour but the auditory effects were just the beginning “we had two projectors and a computer program constructing abstract visuals that responded to the sounds we played, and because of the improvised nature of the performance the visuals were different every night.”

Deciding to meet his public headlong Hancock decided that “we would play the first two songs off the album and by the time we’d finished ‘Kebero’ we either got amazing applause or we got that kind of shocked applause! Then I would tell the audience ‘Here we are in a new century, a new millennium, where’s the new music? Well perhaps this is some of it. Then they had an idea where I was coming from and the response at the end of the day was tremendous.”

“None of us had done this kind of thing before so we all had to evolve and the first concert was amazingly good because it needed to develop, and I’m glad because it gave us the confidence to do that. We listened back to the tapes after the concerts and we learned from our mistakes.”

We couldn’t resist, here’s that ‘Rockit’ official video

New techniques were developed to bring the album to a live setting “Terri Lynn Carrington sang ‘The Essence’ on tour, she’s not Chaka Khan but she sang the tune, so in order to do that tune we sampled the track so before the bass came in she was able to sing and once the bass kicked in she was able to sing at the very beginning.”

“We played inside the ruins of a castle in Zingen Germany to a small crowd, and Rome was great too one of those great concerts where all of the audience and the band are transported, by the time we got to Zurich everybody was really comfortable with the direction and with the format so we could just concentrate on hearing the music flow. I’m really looking forward to the tour in November ’cause it’s really come together now. When we go out on tour next time I wanna figure out a way of taping it to 48 track to get the full surround sound.” The advent of DVDaudio, as well as Sony’s SACD which can both record and reproduce Dolby surround sound are new formats being pioneered which would lend themselves instantly to a recording of a live concert of Hancock’s new concept. “Joni Mitchell did a new album [‘Both Sides Now’ which both Shorter and Hancock guest on] with a full orchestra singing jazz standards and its gorgeous, and they did a remix of that with SACD and surround sound and when you hear it you can’t move. That’s what I want for my record heck yeah! What I want to do is see if I can manipulate the live recordings, using live components to affect something the way you affect something in Photoshop. I mean I want surround radio, music videos on VH-1 and I want to get on the ground floor of this and get some patents together ’cause we’re doing all the research!”

This is the approach then for Hancock not content with reinventing and reshaping music with Future2Future he wants to change the way hear it and the way it is possible to hear.

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Herbie Hancock – Reinventing the Wall of Sound