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‘The situation you’re in’: Herbie Hancock builds on the past with music from a new generation

Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock
Douglas Kirkland

If you’re a celebrated jazz artist who has played with some of the genre’s lions, you could continually reinterpret the past and satisfy fans nostalgic for your heydays.

Pianist Herbie Hancock, who performs Thursday at Powell Hall in St. Louis, has no interest in being a museum of sound — or giving a music lesson. Instead, he wants to audiences to experience jazz as a living art.

As he has done for decades, Hancock pursues the latest grooves. He’s working on a new record that will tap into the latest generation of stellar jazz musicians, among them Terrace Martin, a multi-instrumentalist who is in Hancock’s touring band.

Martin also is producing Hancock’s next album, expected to be released next year.

“I’ve been working on it now for pretty much a couple of years, in a brand new way from how I normally make records,” Hancock said. “This time we’re creating building blocks … We’re starting from scratch.”  

Those building blocks likely will draw on energy from Hancock’s new favorites — saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Robert Glasper, both of whom connect modern jazz with R&B and hip-hop, as well as rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Hancock’s also interested not so much in what his new works will sound like, but in their spirit — much as he was with "The Imagine Project," a 2010 album featuring international pop stars like the Brazilian singer Ceu and Colombian superstar Juanes.

"This also has that at its heart," Hancock said of his latest project. "But now I want to bring people from various segments, and really talk about something that’s a little more direct — and that is, what people are accustomed to when they’re suffering.

"When things are not going well, they’re accustomed to looking outside themselves for the reason — who they can blame or what they can blame for their pain or their discomfort or the challenges that they’re facing. What they fail to realize is in a lot of cases, often their worst enemy is themselves. The best thing you could do is first look at yourself to see what you may be doing that’s contributing … to the situation you’re in."

The 77-year-old said he realizes the way he describes his new focus "sounds like a psychology lesson," but through his music he wants to express the lows and highs of everyday life and how both are part of one’s journey—  much as playing the blues allowed musicians to also express joy. That, Hancock said, is the essence of the African-American musical tradition that gave birth to jazz and is the foundation for rock 'n' roll and modern pop.

 "This music that was created by African-Americans in the past has blossomed. It was born out of difficulty and racism and turmoil and slavery," Hancock said. "But it is an example of something that’s deeper than just being black. It’s about being human. It means human beings have the ability to turn poison into medicine."


Hancock has been expressing his humanity on the piano for more than half a century, infusing jazz with classical influences and contributing to modal jazz experiments by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1960s. His experiments are all about growth — and luring new listeners.

His album "Headhunters," released in 1973, was the first jazz album to go platinum, largely on the strength of the funk-infused tune "Chameleon." In the 1980s, Hancock had success on the dance and R&B charts with "Rockit" from his album "Future Shock." A decade ago, he won two Grammys for "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to Joni Mitchell on which he was backed by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a longtime friend and collaborator.

In St. Louis this week, Hancock will be joined on stage by Martin on keyboards, saxophone and vocoder; Lionel Loueke on guitar; James Genus on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.

Along with new music, Hancock said the band will return to his signature tunes, among them "Cantaloupe Island," "Dolphin Dance," "Maiden Voyage" and "Chameleon." Doing so, he said, is a way to push the music forward and share knowledge with younger artists.

"In my youth the musicians that had been around for years and had a lot of experience with the music and with life shared their knowledge and their experience with me," Hancock said. "Now it’s my time to pass the baton on to the new musicians that are really bringing new life to the music that I love and that I think is really invaluable, which is jazz."

Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares

If you go

What: Herbie Hancock

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Powell Hall, 710 N. Grand Blvd.

Tickets: $40-$65

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