Herbie Hancock Biography

Herbert Jeffrey Hancock, 12 April 1940, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Growing up in a musical household, Hancock studied piano from the age of seven and gave his first public performance just two years later. Although he played classical music at his debut Hancock’s interest lay mostly in jazz. During high school and college he played in semi-professional bands and on occasion accompanied visiting jazzmen, including Donald Byrd. It was with Byrd that Hancock first played in New York, in 1961, recording with him and as leader of his own small group. Among the tunes on Hancock’s debut for the Blue Note Records label was ‘Watermelon Man’, an original composition that appealed to more than the usual jazz audience. A version of the song, by Mongo Santamaría, reached the US Top 10 in 1963.

During the early and mid-60s Hancock led bands for club engagements and record sessions, completing the influential albums Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965). The move which really boosted his career and international recognition was joining the quintet led by Miles Davis, with whom he stayed for more than five years. During this time he appeared on the Davis albums E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles In The Sky, and Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968). The last two albums marked the point where Davis began his move into jazz rock. Hancock felt comfortable in this style and in 1968 formed a sextet to pursue his own concepts. With musicians such as Julian Priester, Buster Williams and Joe Henderson, and playing much original material composed by Hancock, the band became one of the most popular and influential of the jazz rock movement in the early 70s, with a series of albums for Warner Brothers Records. From 1969 Hancock made extensive use of electronic piano and other electronic keyboard instruments, including synthesizers (played by Patrick Gleeson).

In 1973, following one further album for new label Columbia Records, economic pressures compelled Hancock to cut the band to a quartet, which featured Bennie Maupin, who had also been in the bigger group. The new group’s music was again fusion, but this time leaned more towards jazz funk. Whether by good fortune or through astute observation of the music scene, Hancock’s first album with the quartet, 1973’s Head Hunters, was widely accepted in the burgeoning disco scene and achieved substantial sales. Throughout the rest of the 70s Hancock’s music was concentrated in this area with occasional returns to jazz for record sessions, and he made frequent use of synthesizers, voice-box and other state-of-the-art electronic devices. By the end of the decade, his popularity in the disco market was such that he cut down still further on straight jazz performances. Certain albums he made, with Chick Corea and with his own band, V.S.O.P. (a re-creation of the Davis quintet except with Freddie Hubbard in place of Miles), suggested that he retained an interest, however peripheral, in jazz. His numerous disco successes included ‘I Thought It Was You’ and ‘You Bet Your Love’, the latter a UK Top 20 hit in 1979, and in collaboration with Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn of Material he recordedFuture Shock, one track from which ‘Rockit’ (an instrumental that featured scratching) reached the UK Top 10 in 1983 and made the top spot in the USA. The track also won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. Hancock collaborated with Laswell and the Rockit Band on two further albums, with 1984’s Sound-System winning him his second Grammy Award (for Best R&B Instrumental Performance).

In 1986 Hancock played and acted in the movie ’Round Midnight. He also wrote the score, for which he won an Academy Award. Subsequently, he became more active in jazz, touring with Williams, Ron Carter, Michael Brecker and others. In 1994, he teamed up with Carter, Williams, Wayne Shorter, and Wallace Roney to record a tribute album to Miles Davis, who had died three years previously. A Tribute To Miles won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Individual Or Group. In marked contrast, the same year’s Dis Is Da Drum (Hancock’s first for the Mercury Records group) steered towards acid jazz. The New Standard (1995) was an interesting concept album. On this Hancock gave interpretations of songs by rock singer-songwriters such as Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Prince and lo and behold, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. An excellent collaboration with Wayne Shorter in 1997 featured both musicians performing without accompaniment. Hancock’s late 90s tribute to George Gershwin was another excellent recording, with guest apperances from Shorter, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell. The album won Hancock his seventh Grammy Award.

Hancock’s first recording of the new millennium, Future2Future, was a bold album that featured prominent electronica influences courtesy of Bill Laswell and turntablist Rob Swift. The same year, Hancock teamed up with Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove to record a live tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The Grammy Award-winning Directions In Music: Live At Massey Hall presaged regular tours by the trio. In 2005, Hancock launched a new quartet that leaned towards world music (and featured Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke) and also revived the Head Hunters with new personnel. In 2007 he released River: The Joni Letters, a strong tribute to the work of Joni Mitchell. The album won two Grammys the following year, notably the Album Of The Year award (only the second jazz album ever to receive the honour).

Hancock has displayed far-reaching inventiveness, setting standards for the pop industry. Although Hancock’s first love is jazz, he has skilfully pushed his music into other areas creating a body of work that is breathtaking in its scope. The career moves made by Hancock over the years have tended to alienate the hardcore jazz fans who applauded his earlier work with Davis, alhtough his popularity with the disco and related audiences has not been achieved at the expense of quality. All of his successes in this area have been executed to the highest musical and other professional standards; the pop video accompanying ‘Rockit’ was an award winner. Where his jazz work is concerned, he has displayed an intelligent approach to his material. If the music is often cerebral, it is rarely without heart; indeed, the V.S.O.P. band’s recreations have been notable for their integrity and a measure of passionate intensity that at times matches that of the original.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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