Herbie Hancock is on Fire. orn in Chicago in 1940, Hancock was a child prodigy on the piano. By age 11, he had performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He began playing jazz in high school, initially influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. In addition to his fascination with music, he also developed an interest in electronics, which led him to study both music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.
In 1960, when Hancock was 20, trumpeter Donald Byrd discovered the young pianist and asked him to join his group. Byrd also introduced him to Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records, and after two years of session work with the likes of Phil Woods, Freddie Hubbard and Oliver Nelson, Hancock signed with the jazz label as a solo artist. Hancock’s 1962 debut album, Takin’ Off, was an immediate success, with the hit single “Watermelon Man” making a splash on both jazz and R&B radio. That same year, Hancock was invited to join what has come to be called Miles Davis’ second great quintet. Hancock stayed with the group for five years, appearing on such albums as ESP, Miles Smiles and Nefertiti.
In 1973, Hancock recorded the jazz-funk fusion record Headhunters. It became jazz’s first platinum album. By the middle of the ’70s, Hancock was playing to stadium-sized crowds all over the world, and had no fewer than four albums on the pop charts at once.
In 1983, Hancock began a series of collaborations with producer Bill Laswell. The first, Future Shock, went platinum, on the strength of the single “Rockit,” which won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental. Sound System, the follow-up to Future Shock, also received a Grammy in the R&B instrumental category.
In 1996, Hancock recorded 1996’s Grammy-winning The New Standard, an album of rock and R&B hits adapted into straight-ahead jazz tunes. His 1998 album Gershwin’s World brought together such artists as Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Kathleen Battle, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea to celebrate the famous composer. The album won three Grammy Awards in 1999.
In 2005, Hancock released Possibilities, featuring duets with such pop icons as Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Sting and Christina Aguilera. In 2007, he followed it with River: The Joni Letters, a collection of jazz versions of Joni Mitchell tunes, which earned him three Grammy Awards — including the 2008 Album of the Year.
Unlike Miles, who pressed ahead relentlessly and never looked back until near the very end, Hancock has cut a zigzagging forward path, shuttling between almost every development in electronic and acoustic jazz and R&B over the last third of the 20th century and into the 21st. Though grounded in Bill Evans and able to absorb blues, funk, gospel, and even modern classical influences, Hancock’s piano and keyboard voices are entirely his own, with their own urbane harmonic and complex, earthy rhythmic signatures — and young pianists cop his licks constantly. Having studied engineering and professing to love gadgets and buttons, Hancock was perfectly suited for the electronic age; he was one of the earliest champions of the Rhodes electric piano and Hohner clavinet, and would field an ever-growing collection of synthesizers and computers on his electric dates. Yet his love for the grand piano never waned, and despite his peripatetic activities all around the musical map, his piano style continued to evolve into tougher, ever more complex forms. He is as much at home trading riffs with a smoking funk band as he is communing with a world-class post-bop rhythm section — and that drives purists on both sides of the fence up the wall.
Having left the Davis band in 1968, Hancock recorded an elegant funk album, Fat Albert Rotunda, and in 1969 formed a sextet that evolved into one of the most exciting, forward-looking jazz-rock groups of the era. Now deeply immersed in electronics, Hancock added the synthesizer of Patrick Gleeson to his Echoplexed, fuzz-wah-pedaled electric piano and clavinet, and the recordings became spacier and more complex rhythmically and structurally, creating its own corner of the avant-garde. By 1970, all of the musicians used both English and African names (Herbie’s was Mwandishi). Alas, Hancock had to break up the band in 1973 when it ran out of money, and having studied Buddhism, he concluded that his ultimate goal should be to make his audiences happy.
The next step, then, was a terrific funk group whose first album, Head Hunters, with its Sly Stone-influenced hit single, “Chameleon,” became the biggest-selling jazz LP up to that time. Now handling all of the synthesizers himself, Hancock’s heavily rhythmic comping often became part of the rhythm section, leavened by interludes of the old urbane harmonies.