Music Herbie Hancock
by
Steven F. Pond
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0174

Introduction

Herbie Hancock (Herbert Jeffrey Hancock, b. 1940) is one of the key figures in jazz, although his musical importance extends beyond “jazz” as narrowly defined. Born in Chicago, he began classical piano study at age seven; at eleven he won a competition to play onstage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He attended Grinnell College, majoring first in engineering before switching to music. Moving to New York City as a protégé of trumpeter Donald Byrd in 1961, he gained early notice for his 1962 recording “Watermelon Man,” subsequently turned into a Latin-jazz hit by percussionist Mongo Santamaria. He soon became known as a rising sideman, recording artist, and composer, and, beginning in 1963, he became a key member of what would become known as Miles Davis’s “second great” quintet. Since leaving Davis in 1968, Hancock has embraced a variety of idioms, some of which have incited controversy among critics and fans. His seeming oscillation between “acoustic” and “electric” (interpreted by some as “jazz” and “pop”) can also be understood as pushing beyond stylistic confines associated with either mode; indeed, Hancock’s musical strategies might be described as “eclectic” or “agnostic.” Although the literature on Herbie Hancock is enormous—a casual Internet search yields more than 6 million hits—the scholarly literature is surprisingly limited. As of this writing, Hancock has produced a memoir (Possibilities, co-written with Lisa Dickey; Hancock and Dickey 2014, cited under Historical Analysis: Issues and Topics Overview), but there is no monograph biography. A full understanding of Hancock’s life, music, times, and influence must therefore be pieced together from a variety of sources. This article seeks not to present Hancock in his entirety but to aid the researcher in teasing out issues, sources, and points of view to help build a three-dimensional portrait. Special attention is placed on scholarly sources, but popular press profiles, interviews, and reviews are also included. Finally, discographies are listed, as are anthology reissues, but this entry does not attempt to catalogue Hancock’s recordings as a discography might.

Sources: Bibliographies and Discographies

No bibliography or discography of Herbie Hancock can claim to be complete; the sources listed here are inherently not up-to-date. That said, they can be useful to researchers in their attempts to be selective (Pickering 2000, Newey 1998) and encyclopedic (Herbie Hancock, Schlueter, et al. 2013). Schlueter et al. also includes a glossary of electronic instruments used by Hancock and others and a brief discography of Hancock’s pre- and post-Columbia career.

  • Herbie Hancock. Darmstadt, Germany: Jazzinstitut Darmstadt, 2012.

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    An outstanding, fastidiously researched bibliography, with over 600 entries through October 2012. Indexed by type, including books, feature articles, concert reviews, record reviews, transcriptions, and other categories.

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  • Newey, Jon. “A Jazz-Rock Fusion Discography.” In Jazz-Rock: A History. Edited by Stuart Nicholson, 339–424. New York: Schirmer, 1998.

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    Newey’s discography is tied thematically to each of Nicholson’s chapters, suggesting sonic referents to Nicholson’s points and, at the same time, establishing a canon of jazz-rock recordings. As with Pickering, Newey’s discography is select and limited to information available at time of publication; nevertheless, he presents Hancock’s work in the larger context of fusion (a two-decade history at the time of publication).

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  • Pickering, Dan. “Selected Discographies.” In Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music. Edited by Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman, 264–297. New York: Hal Leonard, 2000.

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    Compiled and edited by Pickering (“except where noted,” Coryell writes) from lists supplied by the artists and managers. The resulting list reflects what the artists believe, as of 1978, to be their best and most emblematic work. The discography places Hancock’s work in the context of who, as of 1978, were the most important artists in fusion jazz. Originally published in 1978.

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  • Schlueter, Max, with Bob Belden and David Rubinson. “Complete Discography & Individual Album Commentary.” In The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972–1988. Edited by Herbie Hancock. 34-CD set, 2013.

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    From the reissue set of Hancock’s thirty-one albums produced by Richard Seidel and issued by Columbia (888697724082):all albums released in the United States and Japan (including eight albums never before issued in the United States). Schlueter, Hancock’s most extensive collector and discographer, includes information such as musical personnel, release dates, detailed recording, album artwork, chart positions, and commentary on the album’s musical features and context in Hancock’s career. Liner notes: 71–170.

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Historical Analysis: Issues and Topics Overview

Recurring issues and topics have swirled around Herbie Hancock since he first rose to prominence in the early 1960s. He drew early critical approval for his sensitive and creative post-bebop piano style, especially as a member of Miles Davis’s “second great” quintet (1963–1968). At the same time, many of his successes as a recording artist exploited danceable, funky grooves. His restless, expansionist approach to jazz (“jazz” conceived as broadly as possible) has periodically stirred controversy among musicians, critics, and the public. In 1972 Hancock converted to Nichiren Shōchū Buddhism and became a member of its lay body, Soka Gakkai International; he has become an influential advocate for Buddhist practice. The sections here investigate these issues through a growing body of scholarship, liner notes, and essays written by critics, as well as print and web-based criticism. Key overview sources, in Hancock’s own words, are his memoir Possibilities (Hancock and Dickey 2014) and his lecture series at Harvard University, The Ethics of Jazz (Hancock 2014). The lectures are available online: “Set 1: The Wisdom of Miles Davis,” “Set 2: Breaking the Rules,” “Set 3: Cultural Diplomacy and the Voice of Freedom,” “Set 4: Innovation and New Technologies,” “Set 5: Buddhism and Creativity,” and “Set 6: Once Upon a Time . . . .” Another long view of Hancock’s oeuvre, at least the Columbia Records period that saw Hancock traversing broad stylistic terrain, can be found in the booklet accompanying the 34-disc retrospective, The Complete Columbia Album Collection, 1972–1988 (Schlueter, et al. 2013, cited under Sources: Bibliographies and Discographies).

Philosophy and Positions

Throughout his career, and particularly since his conversion to Nichiren Buddhism in 1972, Herbie Hancock’s aesthetic, philosophical, and social positions have attracted scrutiny. Assessments of his skill at balancing art and commerce, and his will to do so, became an overarching theme as early as 1963, with Mongo Santamaria’s cover of “Watermelon Man.” Debates over whether Hancock had “sold out” gained force with Head Hunters (1973) and have continued ever since. His embrace of Buddhism, frequently mentioned in newspaper profiles and interviews, has become an overarching theme in his life. Other themes emerge in the literature, including mentoring and apprenticeship, promoting world peace and understanding through jazz, the value of restless curiosity and embrace of the new public, jazz’s place in race relations, and breaking through limiting rules—in harmony as in life. Hancock’s philosophical positions are therefore intermingled—if not conflated—with his musical directions.

Jazz Aesthetics as a Philosophy

This section covers general stances about aesthetics in long views, as opposed to discussions of particular idioms or style periods, and their implications in Hancock’s life broadly. (See also Philanthropy and Public Projects, Music Technology, and Nichiren Buddhism.) Hancock begins his Harvard lecture series (The Ethics of Jazz; see Hancock 2014, cited under Historical Analysis: Issues and Topics Overview) with a talk (Hancock 2014a) on lessons learned from Miles Davis, among others. (Davis himself is the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny, particularly on the subject of his influence.) His second lecture (Hancock 2014b) extols creative rule-breaking as a key to music aesthetics and, analogously, to life. His final talk (Hancock 2014c) summarizes his philosophy and demonstrates it in an on-stage improvisation with a small group; among his points is an appeal to collaboration and mentorship. Allen 1995 uses Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor to illustrate the importance of mentor–menteeships in jazz, as part of the creative process. In an interview, Hancock (Atia 2001) articulates his view of jazz as expansionary and inclusive, themes he develops further in his lecture series. These themes are already present in his 1978 interview with Julie Coryell (Coryell and Friedman 2000), presented here in the context of fifty-eight contemporary interviews with key figures in 1970s fusion jazz. See also Style Analysis.

  • Allen, Geri. “The Art of Jazz and the Creative Process.” International Jazz Archives Journal 1.3 (Fall 1995): 88–92.

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    Allen, an internationally famous pianist in her own right, argues that jazz is “an apprentice-oriented art form” demanding assiduous study and flourishing through mentor–mentee relationships. She points to three primary innovators for sustained study: Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor.

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  • Atia, Tarek. “Conversation with the Chameleon.” Al-Ahram Weekly, 5 April 2001.

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    In Egypt to promote the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz, Hancock explains his view of jazz (and his approach to music generally) as expansionary and explorative, rather than circumscribed.

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  • Coryell, Julie, and Laura Friedman. “Herbie Hancock.” In Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music. Edited by Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman, 159–163. New York: Hal Leonard, 2000.

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    This book of interviews, conducted by the former wife of guitarist Larry Coryell, is the first book-length treatment of fusion. The themes touched upon have been replicated many times, but Hancock’s interview in the context of the collection of fifty-eight musicians, organized by instrument, gives good context and establishes a canon of key musicians and their recordings as of the late 1970s. Originally published in 1978.

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  • Hancock, Herbie. “Set 1: The Wisdom of Miles Davis.” In The Ethics of Jazz. Lecture series for the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University, 2014a.

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    Introduced by Prof. Homi Bhabha. 70 min. Hancock relates lessons learned while a member of Miles Davis’s “second great” quintet, 1963–1968. Davis’s cryptic, terse instructions (e.g., “don’t play the butter notes”) demanded contemplation. Hancock’s improvisational responses on the bandstand (“there are no wrong notes, only better choices”) opened him to broader implications in life.

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  • Hancock, Herbie. “Set 2: Breaking the Rules.” In The Ethics of Jazz. Lecture series for the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry. Harvard University, 2014b.

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    Introduced by Prof. Osvaldo Golijov, College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA). 64 min. Hancock’s lecture celebrates iconoclasts who had the wisdom to see another path and the courage to rebel. A primary message is: Shrug off limitations, else chaos ensues. Illustrated through his early work with Eric Dolphy, harmony lessons with his teacher Chris Anderson, and Hancock’s engagement with hip-hop, the theme applies to improvisation, composition, and life.

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  • Hancock, Herbie. “Set 6: Once Upon a Time . . ..” In The Ethics of Jazz. Lecture series for the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University, 2014c.

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    Introduced by Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. 88 min. Lecture-workshop to summarize the series. Open rehearsal (with Terri Lyne Carrington, Lionel Loueke, and young bassist Josh Hardy [meeting Hancock for the first time that day]) to demonstrate the creative process and to demonstrate the importance of mentoring, offering mutual respect, persevering, rejecting preconceptions, believing in one’s own abilities, having the courage to change, and living with purpose.

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Nichiren Buddhism

In 1972 Hancock embraced Nichiren Buddhism, a sect established in 13th-century Japan, becoming a member of its associated lay organization, Soka Gakkai International. Almost immediately, Hancock began referring, in journal interviews and song titles, to his Buddhist faith and his practice of chanting the Lotus Sutra (Myoho-renge-kyo). References to Buddhism are found in many, if not most, of his journal interviews, song titles, and other vehicles; the sources included here address Hancock’s Buddhist faith centrally. Hancock’s autobiography (Hancock and Dickey 2014) chronicles Hancock’s introduction to Buddhism and its subsequent influence on his life. His Harvard lecture on Buddhism and Creativity (Hancock 2014) explains how Buddhist belief and practice can assist in jazz, as well as life more broadly. In an interview (Andrew 2007), Hancock ties his Buddhist practice to the longevity of his creative career. Critical reception of implications from Hancock and Nichiren Buddhism is mixed. John-Hall 2000 values Buddhism’s appeal to African Americans as an alternative to Christianity. Tapley 1976 credits Buddhism with encouraging Hancock to shed his elitist attitudes, resulting in his embrace of funk. Cunningham 1985 offers a skeptical take on Nichiren Buddhism, which the author calls a cult with a “dark side”; skepticism turns to alarm in Golden 1989.

  • Andrew, Kelly. “You Got To Have Faith: Jazz Legend Herbie Hancock Credits His Buddhist Faith with Keeping Him Ahead in a Five-Decade Career.” The Dominion Post (May 2007): Arts Section, 8.

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    Hancock attributes his creative stamina to qualities he has developed through Buddhist practice.

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  • Cunningham, John. “Guardian Style: Good-To-Go Buddhism—You Can Be Ritzy, Glitzy, Famous and Fulfilled.” The Guardian, 21 November 1985: 23.

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    Critical take on Nichiren Buddhism. Cunningham claims it is a cult, with a little-publicized dark side, despite its high-profile adherents, such as Herbie Hancock.

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  • Golden, Daniel. “Buddhism American Style: Cloaking Itself in Super-Patriotism, Nichiren Shoshu of America Is Part of an Evangelical Buddhist Sect Gaining Adherents Worldwide with a Guarantee of Happiness Through Chanting. Sounds Pretty Harmless, Right? Cult-Watchers and Ex-Members Don’t Think So.” Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, 15 October 1989: 18.

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    Critical take of Nichiren Buddhism, similar to (but more emphatic than) Cunningham 1985.

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  • Hancock, Herbie. “Set 5: Buddhism and Creativity.” In The Ethics of Jazz. Lecture series for the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry. Harvard University, 2014.

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    Introduced by Prof. Vijay Iyer. 71 min. Rather than a direct influence (“Buddhism doesn’t write the notes for me”), Buddhist belief and practice translate to both jazz and life, focused on inspiration, challenge, and diligence—“turning poison into medicine.”

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  • Hancock, Herbie, with Lisa Dickey. Possibilities. New York: Viking, 2014.

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    Although introducing Nichiren Buddhism halfway through the memoir, Hancock’s Buddhist faith and chanting practices become an overarching theme in the book.

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  • John-Hall, Annette. “Leap of Faith: Thousands of African Americans Have Left Christianity for Buddhism, Finding that the Religion’s Prayers and Chants Speak Powerfully to Their Own History and Experience.” Philadelphia Enquirer, 27 September 2000: D1.

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    Sympathetic profile of Nichiren Buddhism tying the practice’s attractions to African Americans disaffected by Christianity and its colonial associations.

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  • Tapley, Mel. “Herbie Hancock’s Electronic Jazz Skyrocketing with Religious Inspiration.” Amsterdam News, 31 July 1976: D10.

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    As the Mwandishi group became unsatisfying, and as Hancock sought a new musical direction, Buddhist chanting helped him overcome his unrecognized snobbery against funkiness and reach instead for “common ground” with his audience—ultimately resulting in Head Hunters.

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Music Technology

Herbie Hancock is indelibly associated with emerging technology. His childhood curiosity about how things work led him, at first, to major in engineering at Grinnell College before switching to music. Introduced to synthesizers and their sonic range in 1972 by Patrick Gleeson, who would join the “Mwandishi” sextet, Hancock fully embraced the new musical tools. He has often collaborated on emerging hardware and software for performance and production technologies. Belden’s essay and Schlueter’s discography (both in Hancock 2013) provide historical overview and a catalogue of the many electronic instruments Hancock uses on his thirty-one albums for Columbia Records. Hancock, in his Harvard lecture on technology (Hancock 2014) recounts the history of his involvement with these innovations, thematically developing the value of curiosity. Gluck 2012 tells the story of Hancock’s pivotal engagements with studio post-production techniques and his adoption of the synthesizer. Pond 2010 focuses on the synthesizer and post-production techniques on Head Hunters (1973), as well as their political ramifications. The short “how to” in Sigman 2008 offers a technical look into Hancock’s synthesizer sound for “Rockit,” the collaboration with producer/composer/bassist Bill Laswell and turntablist Grand Mixer D.ST that helped black artists penetrate MTV’s important video playlist. In Block 2000, Hancock assesses recent technologies in Internet-based music distribution and Surround Sound production and recounts his own experiments before the advent of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). In a double interview (Eskow 2002), Hancock and Laswell reflect on Laswell’s digital samples, and Hancock’s improvisational reactions to them, as a basis for composition on their recent album Future2Future (2001). Hancock also reflects (Rideout 2002) on the challenges of translating Future2Future’s studio production to live concert performance.

  • Block, Debbie Galante. “AES Keynoter Sees Technology’s Evolution and Its Effect on the Human Spirit.” Billboard 112.40 (30 September 2000): 64.

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    Hancock, in advance of his keynote speech for the Audio Engineering Society’s 105th convention, discusses consumer readiness for Surround Sound audio recordings, the impact of the Internet on the music industry, and his own experiments, with Bryan Bell, in the pre-MIDI era.

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  • Eskow, Gary. “Herbie Hancock.” Mix 26.1 (January 2002): 171.

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    Hancock and producer Bill Laswell discuss the integration of Laswell’s electronic loops and textures into the improvisational and compositional process for the album Future2Future (Transparent, 2001). Hancock at the keyboard reacts spontaneously and improvisationally to loops and musical fragments created by Laswell. These become the basis for the compositions. Hancock also describes changes in his concepts of consonance and dissonance over the years.

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  • Gluck, Bob. You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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    Gluck’s description of Hancock’s band of 1970–1973 captures Hancock’s shift from fronting an essentially acoustic jazz group (albeit with Hancock on electric piano) to his enthusiastic embrace of electronics in the studio and in concert. See especially chapters 6 (“Mwandishi: The Recording”), 7 (“Crossings”) and 8 “Quadraphonic Sound System: Patrick Gleeson on Tour and Sextant”).

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  • Hancock, Herbie. The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972–1988. Columbia 888697724082 (34-CD set), 2013.

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    The accompanying booklet includes a lengthy essay by producer Bob Belden, who discusses Hancock’s use of music technology. The accompanying discography by Max Schlueter (pp. 71–167) includes details of Hancock’s instruments for each recording and contains a glossary (pp. 170–185) of the electronic instruments and effects played. (See also Sources: Bibliographies and Discographies.)

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  • Hancock, Herbie. “Set 4: Innovation and New Technologies.” In The Ethics of Jazz. Lecture series for the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry. Harvard University, 2014.

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    Introduced by Prof. Kay Kaufman Shelemay. 84 min. Hancock discusses his initial attraction to engineering at Grinnell College, his discovery of electronics and synthesizers in the 1970s, and his collaborations with hardware and software developers—all stemming from valuing and encouraging curiosity. A former “snob” about electronic instruments, Hancock had by the early 1970s fully embraced electronics and has continued to experiment with them throughout his career.

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  • Pond, Steven F. “Hands on the Knobs: How Production Techniques Changed the Music.” In Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album. By Steven F. Pond, 117–154. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

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    Pond discusses Hancock’s embrace of synthesizer technology and recording technologies for his landmark 1973 album, Head Hunters, immediately following the period addressed by Gluck. In addition to the technologies involved, Pond discusses the politics engaged in using nonacoustic instruments and post-production editing processes in the context of jazz, as well as the authorial power claimed by Hancock in controlling these processes.

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  • Rideout, Ernie. “Herbie Hancock: Playing Life.” Keyboard 28.2 (February 2002): 34–42.

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    Along with the Eskow 2002 double interview with Bill Laswell, Hancock describes the composition-production process for Future2Future. Hancock goes on here to describe the technical challenges of translating the music and the techniques that created it to the stage for his touring band.

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  • Sigman, Mitchell. “Wicki-Duka-Wicki-Duka—Boom Boom! Recreate Herbie Hancock’s Funky ‘Rockit’ Lead.” Keyboard 34.6 (June 2008): 70.

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    Writing for the synthesizer enthusiast, Sigman describes how to recreate timbral effects used by Herbie Hancock on the 1983 MTV hit “Rockit” from the album Future Shock (Sony Music Entertainment 6619754, 2013). In so doing, Sigman provides a window into constructing signature mid-1980s timbres on synthesizer, if not the aesthetic decisions behind them.

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Afrocentrism/Black Consciousness

Hancock’s involvement in black consciousness and struggle became apparent with The Prisoner (Blue Note, 1969), a meditation on the life, politics, and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and flowered with the “Mwandishi” and Headhunters groups. Anticipating the term “Afro-Futurism” by two decades, portrayals on Hancock’s album art in the 1970s juxtapose black life as ancient and extraterrestrial, and so hyperalienated. Hancock places technology and the African diaspora together as a complex identity. Although he declined to join any formal social movement, Hancock’s adopting a Swahili name—Mwandishi, loosely translated as “composer” (Atia 2001)—projected his increasing Afrocentrism. Gluck 2012 describes Hancock’s embrace of black consciousness in the early 1970s; Pond 2010 likewise investigates the importance of pan-African identity to Hancock in Head Hunters (1973). Hancock’s position is not immune to critique: Feld 1996 points to appropriation by several artists (including Hancock) of field recordings of Ba-Benzélé (Central African) pygmies. Hancock seeks to avoid the appropriator label on the basis of diasporic solidarity (a “brothers thing”). Fellezs 2011 lauds Hancock’s Afrofuturism but remains skeptical about his profiting from, and his romanticized imaging of, Africa. Feld 1996 and Fellezs 2011 thereby query, if not outright challenge, Hancock’s tacit claims of authenticity. Pond 2013 addresses authenticity from the angle of funk: dancers on the syndicated show Soul Train possessed a measure of power to authenticate Head Hunters’ funkiness.

  • Atia, Tarek. “Real Jazz Comes to Town.” Cairo Live, 5 April 2001.

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    Interview. Hancock discusses adopting “Mwandishi” as his name in the context of 1960s–1970s racial politics.

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  • Feld, Steven. “pygmy POP: A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28 (1996): 1–35.

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    Using Bill Summers’ hindewhu-like opening to “Watermelon Man” (Head Hunters, 1973), Feld calls attention to a difficult tension between cultural inspiration and cultural appropriation and the latter’s economic and political consequences.

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  • Fellezs, Kevin. “Chameleon/Herbie Hancock.” In Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion. By Kevin Fellezs, 183–221. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

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    Fellezs’s chapter notes Hancock’s engagement with Afrofuturism (as do Feld 1996, Gluck 2012, and Pond 2010). Fellezs extends Feld’s concern over Hancock’s appropriation—and romanticization—of pygmy oral tradition to his appropriation of funk. Is it appropriation or part of Hancock’s musical development?

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  • Gluck, Bob. You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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    Gluck’s history of Hancock’s under-acknowledged band prior to Head Hunters (i.e., 1970–1973) includes discussions of Hancock’s sympathetic, but not militant, attraction to the black consciousness movement of the time.

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  • Pond, Steven F. “An African Thing: Aesthetics and Identity in Head Hunters.” In Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album. By Steven F. Pond, 31–50. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

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    Pond investigates the Headhunters band’s use of African imagery and musical signifiers as expressions of black consciousness, and of these elements as a driving force in the album’s sound, production, and marketing.

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  • Pond, Steven F. “‘Chameleon’ Meets Soul Train: Herbie, James, Michael, Damita Jo, and Jazz-Funk.” American Studies 52.4 (2013): 125–140.

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    The article explores dancers’ reception of “Chameleon” on the syndicated show Soul Train, as a key means of conferring approval and funk authenticity to the recording.

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Philanthropy and Public Projects

Herbie Hancock has long involved himself with social and cultural projects to benefit jazz and society more broadly. In 1969 he collaborated on an ambitious plan for a cultural center in economically challenged Harlem (“Jazz Music Center Proposed for Harlem” 1969). For example, he is the Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, an organization established in 1986 to foster and promote the highest musical achievement in jazz, largely through mentorship and education (Atia 2001). He has also served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), promoting an International Jazz Day initiative (Chinen 2013). Hancock articulates his view of the importance of jazz as an instrument of cultural diplomacy in his Harvard lecture series (Hancock 2014).

Style Analysis

Herbie Hancock has attracted significant research among scholars seeking to explain his keyboard and composition styles. Several studies are not directly focused on Hancock but nevertheless offer illuminating background viewpoints (see Overarching/Background Analysis). Analyses of Hancock’s improvisational and compositional styles tend to center on two distinct areas of Hancock’s music-making: his work on acoustic piano, considered in isolation or in the context of acoustic small-group settings, largely in the 1960s, and his post-1960s work, largely centered on his use of electronics. (For “acoustic” analyses, especially by music theorists, see Analysis of Hancock’s Acoustic, Small-Group Music-Making, Hancock and the Miles Davis Quintet, Hancock and Others: Comparative Piano Studies, and Hancock’s Pianistic and Compositional Style: 1960s.) Piano transcriptions often serve as primary tools for analysts, and a selection of transcriptions (scores either standing alone or with added short commentaries) appears in a separate section (see Transcriptions of Herbie Hancock Recordings). Treatments of Hancock’s post-1960s work, which emphasizes electronic sound production and manipulation, tend toward cultural and aesthetic considerations, with far less emphasis on transcription or harmonic analysis (see Analysis of Hancock’s Electronic, Synthesized Music-Making).

Overarching/Background Analysis

These studies address overarching musical style issues in Herbie Hancock’s oeuvre, including general jazz aesthetics not centrally focused on Hancock (Kernfeld 1995, Monson 1997) and larger aesthetic analyses using Hancock for illustration (Butterfield and Benadon 2006, Hodson 2007, Leong 2011, Krieger 2012).

Analysis of Hancock’s Acoustic, Small-Group Music-Making

Much scholarly interest in Hancock’s playing style centers on his work on the acoustic piano, considered both in isolation and in the context of the small “acoustic” (i.e., unamplified) group. Hancock’s piano style is considered within the context of the “second great” Miles Davis Quintet (1963–1968; see Hancock and the Miles Davis Quintet), in comparison to other pianists associated with Davis (see Hancock and Others: Comparative Piano Studies) and in attempts to fathom Hancock’s stylistic techniques and procedures (see Hancock’s Pianistic and Compositional Style: 1960s).

Hancock and the Miles Davis Quintet

Studies of the mid-1960s Davis quintet include first-person accounts (Davis and Troupe 2011, Sidran 2006) and analytical studies (Coolman 1997, Hodson 2007 [cited under Style Analysis: Overarching/Background Analysis], Lindeman 1997, Waters 2011). Waters 2011 has sparked spirited critical engagement; examples include Gridley 2012 (by an author whose jazz history text dominates the field) and Stover 2011 (written by a music theorist). Taken together, these analyses attempt to account for Hancock’s stylistic development in interaction with others in the group; as such their focus is immediate, even as they trace a developmental arc in the way those interactions changed over several years. For more pointed discussions of Hancock’s style contrasted with other pianists, especially pianists also associated with Miles Davis, see Hancock and Others: Comparative Piano Studies.

Hancock and Others: Comparative Piano Studies

Several analytical studies seek to compare and contrast Hancock’s piano improvisational style with others associated with Miles Davis, as well as other prominent pianists of the 1950s and 1960s. Lindeman 1997 and Perry 2006 offer somewhat differing takes on the influence upon Hancock by his predecessors. Waters 2001–2002 compares Hancock with his contemporary, Keith Jarrett, illuminating each pianist’s methods for breathing life into a standard song form.

  • Lindeman, Steve. “Miles’s Stella: A Comparison in the Light of the Two Quintets.” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 9 (1997): 57–76.

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    Analyzes and compares two performances of “Stella By Starlight” by Miles Davis’s first and second “great” quintets to show the influence of free jazz on the latter (which includes Hancock). Lindeman’s article addresses Hancock’s style within the larger context of the quintet (see Hancock and the Miles Davis Quintet).

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  • Perry, Justin Clay. “A Comparative Analysis of Selected Piano Solos by Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Herbie Hancock from Their Recordings with the Miles Davis Groups, 1955–1968.” DMA diss., University of Miami, 2006.

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    Analysis of two representative solos each by key pianists in Miles Davis’s pre-fusion groups, along three lines of inquiry: melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic contribution. Each pianist study stands alone while also offering comparisons; Perry explores each figure’s influence on his successors. Hancock breaks this chain of influences somewhat by focusing on developing melodic fragments, liberation from harmonic progression, and singular approaches to rhythm and phrasing.

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  • Waters, Keith. “Outside Forces: ‘Autumn Leaves’ in the 1960s.” Current Musicology 71–73 (Spring–Spring 2001–2002): 276–302.

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    Waters compares versions of the jazz standard by Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, playing, respectively, on recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet (Miles in Europe, Columbia KCS 8983, 1964) and the Charles Lloyd Quartet (Dream Weaver, Atlantic SD 1459, 1966). Waters examines Hancock’s and Jarrett’s uses of metric and accentual devices to overcome limitations of the standard thirty-two-bar song form.

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Hancock’s Pianistic and Compositional Style: 1960s

Analytical studies seek to explain Hancock’s approach to improvisation on the piano and to composition. Waters 2005, Morgan 2000, and Peters 2013 focus on Hancock’s harmonic language, especially in his move away from functional harmony. Peters 2013 broadens these considerations to also include rhythm, meter, and timbre, especially in light of Hancock’s attraction to early- and mid-20th century classical composers. McAvoy 2014 incorporates both Hancock’srhythm and harmony, and aims to develop new approaches to jazz pedagogy. Waters 1996 sharpens the focus to Hancock’s use of metric displacement, Wallmann 2010 synthesizes all of these elements in the context of Hancock’s work as a bandleader on the Blue Note label (thereby complementing Waters 2011, a large study of the Miles Davis Quintet (cited under Style Analysis: Analysis of Hancock’s Acoustic, Small-Group Music-Making: Hancock and the Miles Davis Quintet). Shipton 2004 adds historical information on the launching of the Blue Note albums.

Analysis of Hancock’s Electronic, Synthesized Music-Making

This section includes analyses that address improvisational, compositional, and orchestrational issues in Hancock’s music-making that incorporate electronic (including electric piano) and synthesized instrumentation. Not music theory works per se (with the exception of Opstad 2009, which is a focused study on Hancock’s style on electric piano), analytical discussions are incorporated into larger historical and aesthetic studies. Blumenthal 1994, a liner note essay, points to the Mwandishi group’s approaches to improvisation and to Hancock’s growing compositional and performing interest in electronics in the early 1970s, which Gluck 2012 greatly expands. Nicholson 1998 situates Hancock’s Headhunters-era style within the larger history of jazz-rock fusion, especially in the 1970s. Thompson 1997 relates Hancock’s aesthetic choices for the landmark Head Hunters album (1973). Pond 2010 foregrounds cultural aesthetics affecting Head Hunters and provides brief theoretical analyses and transcriptions. Opstad 2009, a music theory study, focuses more directly on Hancock’s Headhunters-era electric piano style. Hancock, in Shipton 2004, explains his approach in the creation of the Future2Future album (2001).

  • Blumenthal, Bob. “Liner Notes, in Herbie Hancock, Mwandishi Herbie Hancock: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings.” 2-CD set. Warner Archives (Warner Bros. Records) 2–45732. 1994.

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    Blumenthal’s essay accompanying the anthology reissue traces Hancock’s three albums for Warner Brothers, spanning the rhythm and blues (R&B) Fat Albert Rotunda (1969) and the first two Mwandishi sextet-septet recordings: Mwandishi (1971) and Crossings (1972). Includes brief analyses of songs on the albums, as well as contextual information situating the recordings in Hancock’s oeuvre. A useful companion to Gluck’s book-length treatment (2012) of the Mwandishi period (1971–1973).

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  • Gluck, Bob. You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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    Gluck’s history of Hancock’s avant-garde group explores Hancock’s attractions to free improvisation and the sonic possibilities of the synthesizer, largely through Patrick Gleeson’s inclusion in the band. Throughout, Gluck offers harmonic and sonic analysis.

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  • Nicholson, Stuart. Jazz-Rock: A History. New York: Schirmer, 1998.

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    The first—and so far only—general history of “jazz-rock” as distinguished from “fusion,” which Nicholson sees as the commercially driven forerunner to “smooth jazz.” (On this distinction, see Pond 2010, chapter 1.) Nicholson rightly tracks jazz-rock from a much earlier and far-flung beginning than conventional narratives. His discussion of Herbie Hancock (along with Donald Byrd and Chick Corea) appears as chapter 3: “Light As a Feather” (pp. 184–206).

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  • Opstad, Jon. “The Harmonic and Rhythmic Language of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s Fender Rhodes Solos.” Jazz Perspectives 3.1 (April 2009): 57–79.

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    Opstad focuses on Hancock’s Fender Rhodes electric piano solos, growing out of his earlier acoustic piano style but deeply responsive to groove-based environments in Head Hunters and post-Head Hunters albums. Opstad draws on both jazz and funk aesthetics and fills music analysis gaps left by Pond 2010.

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  • Pond, Steven F. Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

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    Pond presents a “thick,” ethnologically driven description of Head Hunters’ creation and its place in Hancock’s and the other musicians’ oeuvre, and assesses the album’s cultural impact. Includes brief transcriptions and musical analysis, especially of groove and funk aesthetics. (See also Opstad 2009.) Originally published 2005.

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  • Shipton, Alyn. “Herbie Hancock.” In Handful of Keys: Conversations with Thirty Jazz Pianists. By Alyn Shipton, 52–65. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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    Hancock describes his use of technology on Future2Future (Transparent Music 500112, 2001) and his creative process with producer Bill Laswell.

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  • Thompson, Scott H. “Liner Notes.” In Head Hunters. Edited by Herbie Hancock. Columbia/Legacy CK65123, 1997.

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    The essay (reprinted from the 1992 CD reissue) situates Hancock’s attraction to funk, as well aesthetic choices: his decision not to use guitar, locating performers for the album, and arrangement lessons learned from Miles Davis.

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Transcriptions of Herbie Hancock Recordings

Jazz musicians often create transcriptions of solos for sustained study, a practice that dates to jazz’s earliest days as a mediated music. The published transcriptions included here are Dobbins 1992, written by a jazz faculty member at Eastman School of Music, and many by Franz Krieger of the Institute for Jazz Research/Institut für Jazzforschung at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst/University of Music and Dramatic Arts (Graz, Austria), a prolific transcriptionist and co-editor of the journal Jazzforschung/Jazz Research. Dobbins 1992—in which nine transcriptions deal with Hancock’s 1964 oeuvre—explores a fertile period in Hancock’s developing improvisational language. Krieger’s transcriptions excerpt Hancock’s performances across a broad stylistic expanse of Hancock’s career. “Hidden Shadows” (Krieger 2010d) presents Hancock’s early Mwandishi-era exploration of electroacoustic music (Sextant, 1973), juxtaposed with his 2002, hip-hop influenced “This Is DJ Disk” from the Future2Future–Live DVD (Krieger 2010e). These are further contrasted with Hancock’s more mainstream role (Krieger 2007, “As Time Goes By”) as rhythm section sideman for saxophonist Dexter Gordon in Gordon’s soundtrack recording for the Bernard Tavernier film, Round Midnight (1985), as well as Hancock’s 1981 reunion with Miles Davis bandmates Ron Carter and Tony Williams, with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet (Krieger 2011, “Round Midnight”). Hancock’s penchant for striking, even radical, reworkings of well-known songs is illustrated in three transcriptions: a reimagined version of Prince’s 1990 hit (Krieger 2010d, “Thieves in the Temple”), Duke Ellington’s 1934 “Solitude” (Krieger 2010c), which is one of two selections on the 2007 album River: The Joni Letters not penned by Joni Mitchell (Krieger 2010b), and a 1993 version of Hancock’s own mid-1960s standard (Krieger 2010a, “Cantaloupe Island”).

  • Dobbins, Bill. Herbie Hancock: Classic Jazz Compositions and Piano Solos. Rottenburg, Germany: Advance Music, 1992.

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    Transcriptions of ten solos by Herbie Hancock in 1964 and 1968, in studio and concert settings. The solos are of Hancock with on his own recordings for Blue Note records and as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet.

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transkriptionen/Transcriptions: ‘As Time Goes By’ As Played by Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Pierre Michelot.” Jazz Research News 26 (2007): 1281–1282.

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    Transcription of an excerpt from Dexter Gordon’s The Other Side of Round Midnight (Blue Note BY 85135, 1985) the soundtrack from the Bernard Tavernier film Round Midnight (1985).

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transcriptions: ‘Cantaloupe Island’ As Played by Herbie Hancock, Jeff Littleton and Gene Jackson.” Jazz Research News 35 (2010a): 1697–1701.

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    Transcription from Hancock’s 1993 tour with the Herbie Hancock Trio. This version of Hancock’s 1965 standard shows his penchant for radically reworking songs, far beyond the notion of “cover.”

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transcriptions: ‘Hidden Shadows’ As Played by Herbie Hancock and His Ensemble.” Jazz Research News 35 (2010b): 1702–1710.

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    Transcription from Hancock’s “Mwandishi” sextet album, Sextant (Columbia/Legacy CK 64983, 1998 [1973]).

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transcriptions: ‘Solitude’ As Played by Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland.” Jazz Research News 35 (2010c): 1687.

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    Transcription from Hancock’s 2006–2007 album River: The Joni Letters (Verve 1744826, 2007), focusing on Hancock’s (piano) and Holland’s (bass) improvisational relationship.

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transcriptions: ‘Thieves in the Temple’ As Played by Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, John Scofield and Dave Holland.” Jazz Research News 34 (2010d): 1658–1664.

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    Transcription from Hancock’s 1995 album The New Standard (Verve 529584, released 1996). Like the other songs of the album, this is a striking reworking of a recent pop song (this one is by Prince).

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transcriptions: ‘This Is DJ Disk’ As Played by the Herbie Hancock Ensemble.” Jazz Research News 36 (2010e): 1734–1743.

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    Transcription from Hancock’s DVD Future2Future–Live (Sony DVD 55193, 2002). The song showcases turntablist DJ Disk; Hancock plays electronic keyboards.

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  • Krieger, Franz. “Transcriptions: ‘Round Midnight’ as Played by Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and Ron Carter.” Jazzforschung/Jazz Research 37 (2011): 1787–1793.

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    Transcription excerpted from a 1981 recording by the reconvened Miles Davis Quintet’s rhythm section (with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet), released on Herbie Hancock Quartet (Columbia 9343, 1997 [1982]).

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Critical Reception, Journalistic Profiles, and Interviews

Critical writing about Herbie Hancock has generally been laudatory for his playing, although acclaim for his compositional skills built surprisingly slowly at first (see Wallmann 2010, cited under Critical Reception, Journalistic Profiles, and Interviews: 1962–1969: Blue Note; Miles Davis Quintet) Since at least 1969, with his soundtrack for the Bill Cosby animated film, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert and the album Fat Albert Rotunda, his critical reception varied from enthusiasm to head-scratching to hostility. With each new stylistic turn, laurels and darts have been thrown his way. The sources in this section are representative of these responses, but by no means are they exhaustive.

Film Scores

Along with his audio recording and touring, Hancock has created scores for films, receiving an Academy Award in 1986 (Best Original Music Score for the Bertrand Tavernier film, Round Midnight,1985). He has also composed jingles for advertising (“Maiden Voyage” famously began as a jingle for Yardley men’s cologne). Hancock discusses his rhythmic approach to “Maiden Voyage” in Sidran 2006. Reception of the films generally marks them, admiringly, without critically engaging with them, as in Franckling 1985, although soundtrack albums (Gluck 2012, cited under Music Technology) have garnered critical and scholarly attention, for example Gluck’s discussion of the 1969 album Fat Albert Rotunda (reissued on The Warner Bros. Years, 1969–1972, Rhin/Warner Music 8122795904, 2014), a recording that, like Hancock’s other soundtrack albums, suffers somewhat from its separation from the video image. Hancock and Quincy Jones recall moments in their long careers, including their work in creating film scores (Woodward 1990). Hancock offers insights on the composing process for film in his 2014 memoir (Hancock and Dickey 2014).

  • Franckling, Ken. “Filmmaker Tavernier, Herbie Hancock Tackle Move of Jazz Greats in Paris.” Chicago Tribune, 21 April 1985: K31.

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    Franckling’s article anticipates the film, still in development at the time of publication.

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  • Hancock, Herbie, with Lisa Dickey. Possibilities. New York: Viking, 2014.

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    Hancock discusses the compositional process for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up (1967). Antonioni’s anti-elitist opinions about art affected Hancock and reinforced his growing agnosticism about jazz—or any musical style—as high art.

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  • Sidran, Ben, ed. “Herbie Hancock.” In Talking Jazz: An Oral History. Unlimited Media/Nardis, 2006. CD 9 (of 24 CDs; 80pp booklet).

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    In this wide-ranging interview, Hancock describes his compositional approach to “Maiden Voyage,” drawing a connection to his rhythmic and harmonic approaches to Head Hunters. Hancock also comments on the filming of Round Midnight. See also Hancock and the Miles Davis Quintet.

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  • Woodward, Josef. “Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones: Talkin’ ’Bout the Music of These Times.” Down Beat 57.1 (January 1990): 16–21, 56–57.

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    Hancock and Jones are presented as emblematic of old and new (as jazz and pop). They discuss early influences, creating film scores, producing pop music, changes in music technology, and attraction to eclectic music styles, even at the beginnings of their careers.

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1962–1969: Blue Note; Miles Davis Quintet

Many commentators of the time—and since—consider Davis’s mid-1960s group (1963–1968), of which Herbie Hancock was an integral member, among the top few in the history of small-group jazz. Accordingly, an extraordinary number of books, dissertations, scholarly articles, and journal criticism address the topic, most of them incorporating assessments of Hancock’s contributions to the whole. Carner 2000 includes a number of articles that assess Davis’s creative processes and trace trends in critical reception to his music of this period. Carr 1998, a biography of Davis, depends heavily on interviews with Davis and his side musicians and provides much useful performance and recording data. Szwed 2002 offers much descriptive analysis of this period of Davis’s group. Hancock’s recordings as bandleader for Blue Note span roughly the same years (1962–1969); Hancock sometimes incorporated Davis’s sidemen, while often using his recordings as a bandleader to follow musical ideas distinct from his mentor. Belden 1998, a liner essay for Hancock’s Blue Note box set reissue, provides an overview and separate commentary for each album. Pareles 1988, a review of the reissue, typifies the positive critical response to this era of Hancock’s work, but Wallmann 2010 argues that the kudos were relatively slow in coming; reviews were tepid until 1967.

  • Belden, Bob. “Life and Times: Reflections on a Jazz Legend.” In Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions. Edited by Herbie Hancock. Blue Note 95569, 6-CD set, prod. Michael Cuscuna, 1998. B2BN 8243-4-95569-2.

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    Liner notes. Belden offers commentary about Hancock’s pianistic and compositional changes over seven albums as a bandleader and several tracks as a sideman. Belden’s retrospective comments are placed against original liner notes for each album. The narrative writing style suggests analytical insights but does not engage in explicit music analysis.

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  • Carner, Gary, ed. The Miles Davis Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. New York: Omnibus, 2000.

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    Carner’s collection of articles is exceptionally well-chosen for its analytical discussions of Davis’s music, as well as the critical reception surrounding his various stylistic shifts. Originally published in 1996.

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  • Carr, Ian. Miles: The Definitive Biography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1998.

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    Carr’s biography, while not a style analysis study, draws heavily from interviews with many musicians in Davis’s orbit, Hancock included. A reliable source for checking names and dates in Davis’s autobiography.

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  • Pareles, Jon. “The Good, the Bad, the Rare: ’98 Boxed Sets; Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note 60’s Sessions.” The New York Times, 13 December 1988: 31.

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    Parales’s brief review of the boxed reissue summarizes the retrospective critical view (but see Wallmann 2010, pp. 21–25): “[Hancock’s] music encompasses urbane blues and wildly oblique chromatic harmonies, pristine ballads and complex layered rhythms, all delivered with a light touch and a restless intelligence.” (However, see Wallmann 2010, pp. 21–25).

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  • Szwed, John. So What: The Life of Miles Davis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

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    Szwed devotes much space to a musical description of Davis’s bands, pointedly the “second great” quintet, and particularly the band’s creative process.

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  • Wallmann, Johannes P. “Record Reviews and Liner Notes.” In The Music of Herbie Hancock: Composition and Improvisation in the Blue Note Years. By Johannes P. Wallmann, 2–25. PhD diss., New York, 2010.

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    Wallman’s review of the critical response to Hancock’s Blue Note recordings points out that, despite latter-day approval (e.g., Pareles 1988) critical appreciation of his compositional style was tepid or nonexistent until 1967.

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1969–1976: Populism and Avant-Gardism in Electronic Music

Hancock’s embrace of R&B (in Fat Albert Rotunda, 1969), free improvisation (especially incorporating synthesizers, as in the “Mwandishi” group), and funk (again, incorporating synthesizers) is treated analytically under the heading of Analysis of Hancock’s Electronic, Synthesized Music-Making. This period was highly controversial at the time, as demonstrated by contemporary and retrospective criticism and liner notes. Skeptical critics centered on dual concerns over a perceived slide in Hancock’s commitment to improvisation and the specter of “selling out.” Robinson 1970, a concert review, while generally approving Hancock’s avant-garde turn and use of electronics, expresses concern over the likely impact on Hancock’s piano technique. Cole 1971 raises the question of improvisation in the context of a recording (Mwandishi, 1971). Interviewed for Down Beat, Hancock points to the immediacy of audience involvement in shaping the (improvisational) quality of the music (Jagajivan 1973). In a reflection on the Mwandishi period, Hancock acknowledges, with some surprise, the later critical stature of the group, and its popularity among hip hop and electronic dance music (EDM) producers (Hunter- Tilney 2001). On the recurring issue of “selling out,” critics take a harsher tone through the decade (see 1976–1984: “Electric” Albums Post-Headhunters). Strongin 1970 matter-of-factly notes Hancock’s desire to grow his audience past the confines of middle-class white audiences of the Mwandishi group, which Hancock later disbanded largely for economic reasons. Tapley 1976 is appreciative about Hancock’s turn to Nichiren Buddhism and his subsequent turn to a broader, populist audience, casting off what he now recognized as elitist attitudes about jazz. Watts 1974, a concert review, takes him to task for this “coarsened” turn in his music. Echoing this, Wynton Marsalis accuses Hancock of having pandered to his broad audience’s unrefined tastes, damaging the long arc of Hancock’s artistic career (Zabor and Garbarini 2014).

1976–1984: “Electric” Albums Post-Headhunters

Hancock’s “electric” projects—incorporating dance aesthetics and synthesized production techniques—during this period gestured to funk, disco, and hip-hop. Juxtaposed with tours and recordings, played on acoustic instruments that seemed to build directly from his 1960s style (and to repurpose some of his repertoire from that period; see VSOP and Other Acoustic Projects), critics tended to fall into “camps,” advocating one mode or the other. Stokes 1979 disparages Hancock’s emphasis on danceable grooves, and Ginell’s undated but clearly retrospective review of Feets Don’t Fail Me Now awards one star out of five. Mr. Hands stands out as a high point, according to Conte 1981, which does not object to Hancock’s danceable rhythms. The author of Feather 1980, reviewing the same album, also writes glowingly. Harrigan 1981, while careful to call Magic Windows (1981) “pop” as opposed to jazz, approves the album for its pop innovations. A distinctly sour note is sounded in Watrous 1995, whose retrospective assessment as former sidemen of Miles Davis’s “second great” quintet expresses resigned disgust. (See also 1983–1995: Future Shock through Future2Future.)

VSOP and Other Acoustic Projects

In 1976, at the height of his popularity with the Headhunters group, Hancock played a retrospective concert in three acts, reconstituting the Miles Davis Quintet (VSOP: Very Special One-Time Performance, substituting Freddie Hubbard on trumpet), the Mwandishi group, and the Headhunters. Surprised by the enthusiastic reception to VSOP, the group went on a successful tour the following year. This led to intermittent recordings and tours in an acoustic format, in varying incarnations. Drawing from but extending musical language developed in the Davis/Blue Note years, Hancock’s acoustic work has nevertheless embraced stylistic eclecticism, and neat categorical divides of “electric” and “acoustic” ultimately fail. Silvert 2001 (liner notes) declares that VSOP goes beyond a mere rehearsal of Davis’s material and sound; rather, each (fusion) musician’s musicianship has been leavened and matured by experiences outside acoustic post-bop jazz. Ginell’s retrospective review (Review of V.S.O.P.: The Quintet) strives not to overstate the acoustic turn’s importance to the musicians’ careers but claims that their revisiting acoustic jazz had a lasting impact on jazz’s fortunes generally. Although critical notices are generally favorable, not all are. Sullivan 1981, a review of a concert on one of the group’s follow-up tours (this one with a soon-to-be-famous Wynton Marsalis on trumpet), calls the performance “sterile.” Freeman 2002, a review of a live album dedicated to the 75th anniversaries of Miles Davis’s and John Coltrane’s births by Hancock, featuring saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, has the group “playing as if their mortgages depended on it.” In contrast, Heckman’s more favorable review of the same album (Heckman 2001) appreciates that the group is not drawn to imitate their honorees. Generally, Heckman and others prefer Hancock’s acoustic piano. In a comparative review, Heckman 1996 prefers Hancock’s boldness on The New Standard over “young lion” Cyrus Chestnut’s Earth Stories (both 1996). (See also Popular Music Reconceived.)

  • Freeman, Phil. “Review of Herbie Hancock/Michael Brecker/Roy Hargrove: Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (Verve).” Jazziz 19.8 (August 2002): 65.

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    Freeman pans the album: Hargrove “showboats,” and the group plays “like their mortgages depend on it.” As an aside, Freeman complains that Hancock’s recent “‘futuristic’ electro albums have run the gamut from embarrassing to forgettable.”

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  • Ginell, Richard S. Review of V.S.O.P.: The Quintet. Sony 9654, 2001.

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    As Ginell summarizes in his retrospective review, “The V.S.O.P. tours amount to a pit stop in the general shape of Hancock’s evolution, but their influence upon the direction of jazz as a whole in the ’80s and ’90s would be staggering.”

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  • Heckman, Don. “Album Spotlight: Herbie Hancock New Standard, Cyrus Chestnut Earth Stories. Los Angeles Times, 31 March 1996.

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    Album review. Heckman challenges an imaginary “blindfold test” listener to name the young, imaginative keyboardist on the basis of two just-released albums. The winner is fifty-six-year-old Herbie Hancock (The New Standard, Universal 0565624, 2011 [1996]) over thirty-three-year-old Chestnut, Earth Stories, Atlantic 82876, 1996), partly for his bold playing and partly for the album’s conceit of de- and reconstructing recent pop hits, as if from the “great American songbook” of standards.

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  • Heckman, Don. “New Hancock Quintet Pays Homage. Los Angeles Times, 13 October 2001.

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    Concert review of the quintet that recorded Directions in Music, a live album inspired by the 75th anniversaries of the births of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Heckman is wistful over the loss of Davis but impressed by the reworked pieces “that avoid simulation.”

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  • Silvert, Conrad. Liner notes to V.S.O.P.: The Quintet. Sony 9654, 2001.

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    “The Quintet came together in order to play acoustic jazz that, rather than suffering from each man’s having experimented with electronics, seems to have gained resonance and maturity.” Originally published 1977.

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  • Sullivan, Jim. “A Brief Time with Hancock and Friends.” Boston Globe, 30 June 1981: 27.

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    Concert review. Sullivan rates the VSOP II performance (with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet) “sterile” and “lackluster,” despite moments of grandeur. Mentions Magic Windows, currently in production. Regarding the latter, Sullivan pronounces it as containing “some jazz solos, but not really a jazz record.”

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1983–1995: Future Shock through Future2Future

With the highly successful Future Shock (1983) and its hit single “Rockit,” Herbie Hancock found an unprecedented wave of popularity. “Rockit” has retained importance to hip-hop, especially for break-dancing (Atia 2001). Critics rejoiced or recoiled, according to their proclivities. Rogers 1983 proclaims Hancock the first internationally known jazz artist to successfully channel hip-hop’s essence, while Lacey 1983 seems openly hostile to Hancock’s new turn. Hancock periodically returned to funk and its close relations of hip-hop and EDM with subsequent albums. Now, Hancock would be measured against his high-water achievements in hip hop-inflected jazz as well as its funk and post-bop counterparts. Dis Is Da Drum (1995), for example, struck Connelly 1995 as pale in comparison to Future Shock or Head Hunters. Moon 2001, a review of Future2Future, likewise compares the album to others in Hancock’s electronic catalogue, this time favorably. Other voices critique this aspect of Hancock’s music as a whole. Watrous 1995 condemns the entire trajectory of Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and other Miles Davis alumni as misguided and “cursed.” Hancock’s reunion with the Headhunters (Return of the Headhunters, 1998), released the same year as Gershwin’s World, with its eclectic arrangements nevertheless favoring acoustic instruments, suggests that, once again, electronic, danceable albums are folded into a larger oeuvre (Bradley 1998), although his take is far more sanguine than Watrous 1995 (cited under Critical Reception, Journalistic Profiles, and Interviews: 1976–1984: “Electric” Albums Post-Headhunters).

  • Atia, Tarek. “Real Jazz Comes to Town.” Cairo Live, 5 April 2001.

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    Interview with Herbie Hancock. Atia mentions the importance of “Rockit” to hip-hop, an “unofficial hip hop anthem,” especially its importance in breakdancing.

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  • Bradley, Mike. “Hancock Half-Hour; Music.” Times, 4 July 1998: 14.

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    Bradley’s profile of Hancock explains the Return of the Headhunters tour and album (Verve 5390282, 1998), and situates it in his other current projects, including Gershwin’s World (Verve 5577972, 1998). Bradley approves of Return of the Headhunters as a “Nineties take on Seventies jazz-funk but with a helping of acid jazz thrown in.”

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  • Connelly, Laura. “Hancock’s Minimal Music Development.” Los Angeles Times, 21 July 1995.

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    Review of Dis Is Da Drum. To Connelly, the “jazz elements on the record merit half a star.” Dis Is Da Drum pales in comparison to “Rockit”: The new album is cluttered and derivative, where the earlier hit “had space, and was on the leading edge of a new musical style.”

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  • Lacey, Liam. “Review of Future Shock.” Globe and Mail, 1 October 1983: F6.

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    Given the impact of the album and its accompanying video—the one with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a handful of others, that finally achieved airplay on MTV for African American artists—Lacey’s sour take on the single “Rockit” is noteworthy: “imagine a few hundred windshield wipers slapping, overdubbed with car doors closing and sweetened with elevator music, all to a beat you can dance to.”

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  • Moon, Tom. “Herbie’s Orbit Enters Electronica’s Atmosphere.” Jazziz 18.11 (November 2001): 60.

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    Review of Future2Future (Transparent Music 500112, 2001). Moon’s glowing review argues that, as in the case of Head Hunters (1973) and “Rockit” (1983), Hancock’s engagements with popular music go beyond imitation, instead contributing to and improving the emerging pop of the day.

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  • Rogers, Charles E. “Herbie Hancock Leads the New Music Revolution.” Amsterdam News, 24 December 1983: 21.

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    Rogers notes that Hancock is the “first internationally noted musician to capture the spirit and flow” of hip-hop.

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Popular Music Reconceived

Hancock’s music has been marked by an eclectic mixture of instrumentations, blending or juxtaposing “mainstream” acoustic instruments with amplified, distorted, and synthesized “electric” ones and with non-Western instruments or orchestral and chamber ensembles. Beyond instrumentation, he often reharmonizes or otherwise significantly defamiliarizes well-known popular songs and jazz favorites. Extending the examples of The New Standard and New Directions: Live at Massey Hall (both 1996; see VSOP and Other Acoustic Projects), Hancock has several times taken direct aim at pop songs, dramatically reimagining them, and he has likewise invited guest artists from outside the jazz idiom to collaborate on these revisions. Included in these are Possibilities (2006), in which the distinction between “acoustic” (as analog for “jazz”) and “electric” (as “pop”) becomes increasingly moot. Boissoneau 2005, a review, finds the results mixed and criticizes Hancock for not taking a stronger hand in the project. River: The Joni Letters (2007, winner of a Grammy Award for Best Record of the Year) wins near-universal praise, typified in Chinen 2007; yet Johnson 2007 laments the distance between this project and a run of albums preceding it. Gershwin’s World (1997), in which Hancock included Gershwin-penned compositions (both “standards” and concert works) as well as Gershwin’s influential contemporaries, receives general praise. Salmon 1999, a Piano and Keyboard review, calls the album “brilliant, and Verna 1998 is equally enthusiastic. Heckman 1998, while positive overall, questions the album’s wide-ranging premise as unfocused. The Imagine Project (2010), a collaborative collection dedicated to the theme of world peace, recorded in multiple locations across the globe and pointedly cross-cultural in personnel and instrumentation, draws admiration from Hobart 2010 as a mechanism for social change. Kelman 2010, agreeing with message, places distance between the album and jazz.

Possibilities (Book)

Reception of Herbie Hancock’s 2014 memoir Possibilities has largely been favorable but not universally so. Barton 2014 appreciates Hancock’s candor and his “meaty” discussion of the creative process and religious philosophy but finds Hancock’s eagerness to impart hard-won wisdom repetitive and tedious at times. Garratt 2014 senses a decline in Hancock’s creative hunger and, with it, a passing of the torch. Keepnews 2014 shows approval that is less restrained; Keepnews points out Hancock’s (and Dickey’s) ability to explain complex musical ideas to a general public without boring the aficionado.

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