INTERVIEW- Hancock's mission: More than a bunch of tunes

Herbie Hancock

It's absolutely impossible to overstate the importance of Herbie Hancock to modern jazz and fusion. From his early gigs with Miles Davis to his recent duets album, Possibilities, the sexagenarian pianist has accomplished enough for 10 lifetimes. He flexed his chops on mid-'60s albums like the wildly popular Maiden Voyage before shooting for a more accessible hybrid of funk and modal jazz with 1973's Headhunters, which was the first jazz album to go platinum. By the early '80s, he had nailed down a crossover hit with "Rockit," which was purportedly the first video to bring turntable scratching to MTV.

After that, Hancock was free to do whatever he wanted, and all bets were off: on one end, a trio of albums with producer Bill Laswell; on the other, a collaboration with turntablism titan Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners; in the middle, tours with saxophonist Michael Brecker based around the music of Miles and Coltrane, and The New Standard, an album that attempted to induct songs by Peter Gabriel and Nirvana into the jazz canon. Whichever facet of his musical personality comes to the forefront on May 29, he's undoubtedly one of the biggest fish we'll see at the Paramount this year.

The Hook: You have some young guests on Possibilities– Joss Stone, Jonny Lang, and even John Mayer, who was knighted a Headhunter in 2005. What happens when you collaborate across the generation gap?

Herbie Hancock: I hadn't thought so much about the difference between the artists from a generational standpoint. That question wasn't important to me at the time– it's a valid one, but it didn't occur to me. What did occur to me was that I wanted to have a broad generational spectrum on my record. I wanted to have that represented. For me, it's a representation of an openness that I want to have on a record. I guess a better word would be inclusivity.

The Hook: And that's something you strive for elsewhere?

Herbie Hancock: I feel that it's a product of my own growth that I'm much more aware of examining various functions that are important to me as a human being and applying those functions or those concepts to my music.

The Hook: Functions?

Herbie Hancock: Inclusivity is an important function of living. It's attached to purpose. It's only of late that I've been thinking of utilizing purpose to this degree in my tours and in my records. What's the purpose of this record? What purpose will it serve? Not just a bunch of tunes, you know what I mean? I've done records in the past, and they were a bunch of tunes. They may be good tunes, and there may be some bad ones too; that's not the issue that I'm expressing here. But my vision for doing a tour and doing a record is a lot broader in scope. The way that I look at it is a lot broader than it has been in the past.

The Hook: For example?

Herbie Hancock: For thePossibilities album, a question that came into my mind was that in jazz, compared to pop music, we have a lot more opportunity and are more often encouraged to be "outside the box," in a sense. For the most part, the encouragement is for them to stay exactly where they are, expressing themselves in this box. I know that a lot of artists have aspects of their creativity that are not given a chance to show themselves, and they're not encouraged to open up in that way. In a sense, jazz musicians have an advantage. It's the nature of the music– because it's improvised, for one thing– that we have a chance to be free. I thought it might be interesting and express something I really believe in for human beings, that it's interesting and exciting– but often takes a lot of courage– to think outside the box.

The Hook: Is that something you have to push yourself to do when you're improvising?

Herbie Hancock: When I'm improvising, for the most part I try not to think, but to be spontaneous and to act. But I don't shut off my intellectual and mental processes either; I include them. Hey, that's an example of being inclusive!

The Hook: Is music, your own career, more fulfilling now that you're determined to find purpose?

Herbie Hancock: Absolutely. It was fulfilling then, but I feel that now my viewpoint of what I do is, in a sense, healthier. 

The Hook: Where were you when you heard about Michael Brecker's death?

Herbie Hancock: I was in India. It was really strange that the power supply for my cell phone had gotten fried out somehow. Even though it was a 100-volt to 240-volt universal power supply, something burned it out there. So I couldn't keep my phone on all the time– not even on vibrate– because I didn't want the battery to go out because there was no replacement. But I would turn it on once or twice a day to check my voice mail. I had four or five voice mails from Michael Brecker's manager. So I tried to call Mike's manager a couple of times, and then I tried one of the other numbers and it was Buster Williams who told me.

The Hook: And speaking of the dearly departed, what would you have to say to Chris Farley about your appearance in Tommy Boy?

Herbie Hancock: Thanks for recognizing me. Actually, did he write that? We don't know if he wrote that. It might have been in the script written by somebody else. Ha Ha! Assuming that it was his idea, thanks for including me in such a great way, in the short life that you had. I was really flattered. So many people have told me that they saw that in the movie, I was blown away. I went out and bought it!

The Hook: You know, the Alan Parsons Project would have been totally forgotten were it not for Dr. Evil.

Herbie Hancock: I know, those things are cool. Quincy Jones told me how much using his song in that Austin Powers movie actually helped him. Those things are great surprises to any of us, bringing our stuff back into the public consciousness.

Herbie Hancock at the Paramount Theater May 29. $49.50-$60.50, 8pm.