With cameras in tow, a legendary jazz pianist once again slips outside the box
There are musicians who change the way we think about music, there are musicians who change the way we make music, and then there are musicians who change the world. Legendary jazz innovator Herbie Hancock is all three.
|Herbie Hancock: “To work in areas that are unfamiliar is familiar to me.”|
“He’s an explorer, from Miles `Davis`, to Headhunters, to orchestral pieces,” says Doug Biro, director of Possibilities, a new documentary on Hancock. “He doesn’t let himself be pigeonholed.”
But Possibilities isn’t just about Hancock’s contributions to music and his quiet quest to stem the tide of world violence, though both subjects come up more than once. It’s about a musician who repeatedly defies categorization hitting the studio with a collection of contemporary artists, some legends in their own right and some completely new to the game, to yet again shake things up. We’re not talking the jazz piano he played as part of the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s, the electronic jazz-funk he pioneered in the ’70s with Headhunters, or the scratch-driven industrial R&B he created in the ’80s (remember “Rockit”?). This wasn’t an attempt to change music in any way, except maybe the way he makes music for himself.
“I always like to come up with something that’s new for me, something that’s challenging,” Hancock explains. “That’s kind of where I live, so to speak. I like it that way.”
It was Hancock’s idea to document the multiple recording sessions that eventually became the album also called Possibilities. The occasion struck him as important and so, as he invited friends and strangers into the studio with him, it was on the condition that they wouldn’t groan about the handheld HDV cameras swirling around them.
“Some artists I was much more familiar with than others,” he says. “I knew Santana’s, Paul Simon’s, and Sting’s work very well. But I wasn’t as familiar with John Mayer, Joss Stone, or Chrstina Aguilera.” Annie Lennox, Damien Rice, Brian Eno, Trey Anastasio, and even Gina Gershon — yes, the actress who co-starred in Dreamgirls -- made appearances. Every one of them existed outside the proverbial box, so they helped take Hancock outside the box as well.
“I’m so used to being outside a box anyway,” Hancock laughs. “I’m always trying to work outside the box. I’m always trying to do something different than I’ve done before. For me to work in areas that are unfamiliar is familiar to me.”
Biro describes it another way: “Herbie is 65 going on 19. He’s got an insatiable, unquenchable thirst for new — and technology especially. The thing he had from the get-go is he’s a real tech geek and he’d have been an engineer or scientist if he hadn’t become a musician.”
That appetite for new technologies inspired Hancock to use Sony’s (at the time) new HDV cameras, an idea that didn’t come without its share of hitches — like the fact that post-production programs didn’t yet exist to edit the format. “We knew, though, by the time we had to start cutting this film, the post would catch up with the camera,” Biro adds.
The director is still astonished at the degree of access he and co-director Jon Fine were granted by Hancock and his collaborators. “Often, you’ll get these studio things that are recreations or they let you come in for five minutes and you cut something together,” he says. “But we were in the studio with Herbie and these great artists for every moment of every take of every session.”
Biro attributes the documentary’s success to Hancock’s spirit and generosity, an attitude and style that rubbed off on everyone in the studio. “This film has no conflict,” he points out. “Sometimes you want conflict in a film, but it just wasn’t part of what went on. Herbie’s like a love bomb. Every session, despite being with some pretty temperamental artists, he sets the tone and he was so cool and laid back that the sessions were cool and laid back.”
It’s really no surprise to hear that conflict was absent from the studio, given Hancock’s devout commitment to Buddhism. It’s an aspect of his life reflected in the documentary as artists such as Santana and Angelique Kidjo debate the power of light in music and power of music in the world.
“The highest function music can perform is to serve humanity, and that’s what I always hope to achieve in some form,” Hancock says. “It can reflect life, but it in itself is not life. In a sense, you can say it’s a tool, though that’s kind of a cold way to put it. It’s a tool that, in our own human hands and motivated by our hearts, can become something that can encourage others. In many cases, it can be a kind of method to heal.”
Hancock isn’t ready to rest on his laurels just yet, either, even though his laurels could hold any dozen of today’s artists. “I already came up with another idea for my next record, that’s different from Possibilities,” he says. “It would be kind of obvious to do a Possibilities 2 now that I’ve kind of laid out that philosophy/structure.” He chuckles. “But I don’t like to do exactly the same thing twice.”