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Performers frequently overflow with contradictions, but few are as consistently enigmatic as keyboardist Herbie Hancock. He's won steady acclaim in the jazz arena, as well as intermittent scorn for venturing outside it -- but that hasn't stopped him from eagerly delving into popular styles as disparate as classical and hip-hop. He claims not to care about the figurative tomatoes hurled at him by those who see him as a dilettante, and he credits Buddhism, which he's practiced "for nearly thirty years," with helping him achieve a sense of balance and perspective. But while he's mellow and relaxed when driving conversations into areas of his choice -- such as philosophical growth, the death of ego and his latest CD, Future 2 Future -- he can be prickly when the topic moves to the heat he's taken for being a quick-change artist.
"There's only one person named Herbie Hancock," he declares impatiently. "And if I don't express that, then what's my life worth?"
His career has certainly been worth a great deal: Hancock, who's a month shy of 62, is among the most gifted jazz instrumentalists to grace American music in the past forty years. But for him, that's not enough anymore. "My approach to music doesn't come from me being a certain type of musician, or a musician at all," he says. "It comes from me being a human being.
"Being a musician is what I do, but it's not what I am," he goes on. "And it's only one of the things I do. I'm a human being all the time, even when I sleep. But I'm not a musician when I sleep, and I'm not a musician when I eat, unless I'm paying attention to music or talking about music. And I don't always talk about music, and I don't always play music, and I don't always think about music. So I'm out of the box -- and understanding that has opened up my interests in the rest of the world. That interest was there before, but coming from the standpoint of being a human being, now I understand more clearly why it's important to watch CNN, for example, and to pay attention to the news and politics and social issues and cultures of other nations. And it's also made me aware that music isn't about music. Music is the tool to express life -- and all that makes a difference."
According to Hancock, that epiphany struck him about two years ago. But prior to it, his work certainly didn't lack vibrancy. As a sideman, he's perhaps best known for his crucial contributions to a series of mostly wonderful albums by trumpeter Miles Davis, highlighted by 1964's My Funny Valentine, 1966's Miles Smiles, 1969's In a Silent Way and 1970's Tribute to Jack Johnson. But the roster of other luminaries with whom he's collaborated over the years -- Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger and oodles more -- testifies to the high esteem in which he's held across any and all genres.
He's made a good number of worthy recordings under his own name as well. Because they often nodded in the direction of soul jazz and other popular modes (Hancock's "Watermelon Man" was a Top 40 hit for Mongo Santamaria in 1963), the recordings he turned out during his first decade in the public eye were sometimes dismissed as lightweight. But a listen to The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, a 1998 boxed set, demonstrates how well most of his material has aged ("The World According to Herbie," January 21, 1999). Later, inspired by Davis, Hancock became a pioneer of jazz fusion via platters such as 1973's Head Hunters.
The fusion excursions that followed were spottier, but whenever Hancock turned his attention to more traditional jazz, he demonstrated that his chops hadn't atrophied in the slightest. On V.S.O.P. (1977), he joined with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams for an exceedingly successful all-star summit; ten years later, he won a well-deserved Oscar for the score he used in Round Midnight, one of the rare jazz-based films that feels unerringly true to the music.
Hancock has also turned heads outside the jazz universe, most notably with 1983's "Rockit." A single from the 1983 LP Future Shock, overseen by innovative producer Bill Laswell, the selection was received in many quarters as a novelty that would have been soon forgotten were it not for a clever video featuring a closet full of dancing suits that helped make it a left-field hit in the early days of MTV. But the song's use of scratching gave the mass audience an opportunity to hear what was then an underground technique, thereby opening doors to the mainstream for participants in DJ culture.
From time to time since then, Hancock has offered up other projects aimed at non-jazzers, including 1994's rap-flavored Dis Is Da Drum and 1995's New Standard, which found him surveying pop ditties by Peter Gabriel ("Mercy Street"), Prince ("Thieves in the Temple") and even Kurt Cobain ("All Apologies"). Afterward, he sent valentines to the rest of his fan base with 1998's Gershwin's World -- an obvious slab of Grammy bait that eventually earned two of the coveted trophies -- and the same year's Return of the Headhunters!, a watered-down version of earlier triumphs that seemed targeted at the contemporary-jazz crowd.