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What Can You Say About Herbie Hancock?

By Mark Towns
Published: March 10 2005, JazzHouston

The list of huge jazz names of the living legend variety would not be a long one. Ask any jazz fan or critic to rattle off some such names, and Herbie Hancock would be up there at or near the top of any of them, with no argument from virtually anyone.

A pianistís pianist, Hancock first gained prominence as a member of Miles Davisí groundbreaking band from the early 60ís. He then proceeded to turn the jazz world on its ear by producing some of the funkiest stuff ever heard before or since with his synth-heavy Headhunters band from the 70ís. After that, it didnít really matter what else he did, because by then he was HERBIE HANCOCK, and thatís how it pretty much sits today.

So he probably would have sold out the house for his Saturday March 12 show at the Wortham Theater anyway, only the second time a Da Camera show has ever done so (the first and only other time was for another jazz legend, Sonny Rollins, back in 1999) even without having two other huge, near-legendary jazz stars in his band, saxophonist Michael Brecker, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

Hargrove was one of bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespieís favorite young trumpeters, and Brecker himself probably warrants his own article, which could have easily included gushing raves from every jazz sax player in town. But Herbie is so big that weíll give you gushing raves on him instead, coming from some of the best jazz pianists who currently call Houston home:

Andrew Lienhard - "Heís my biggest influence. Iíve been listening to him since I was a teenager, and heís never failed to dazzle me. Heís awesome. He changed the way pianists play, thatís for sure. Harmonically and rhythmically, when he plays, itís very unpredictable. You never know where heís gonna go with it, and itís always interesting. He opened that up, for piano players to explore more when they play. He really created a new vocabulary for pianists to use in a lot of ways -- the way he voices chords, the way he shapes his phrases, the rhythmic stuff he does. He took a lot of chances, and it always paid off. Everyoneís a Herbie clone."

Paul English - "Heís such a huge influence on everybody. Heís obviously a great soloist, great jazz composer, and great band leader. But what people donít talk about as much is that heís a tremendous accompanist. In my opinion, he helped revolutionized the jazz rhythm section as an accompanying force. Listen to ĎMy Funny Valentineí or his ĎMaiden Voyage,í and you can hear where new things started happening as far as accompaniment. He was innovative not only with his own individual accompanying, but also with what he did with the rhythm section to support soloists and the improvisational development of a piece. Thatís what I really listed to in Herbie."

Jerry Sanchez Ė "He is my favorite genius. Heís a very adventurous, very experimental, and very versatile pianist. Heís one of the best jazz comp pianists ever. Check him out with Miles Davis. Heís the perfect example of space in an accompanying pianist."

Bob Henschen - "I have always pointed to him as one of my favorites, along with Bill Evans. Back in the early 60s with Miles was the most influential time hearing him for me, when he was in his 20ís and just playing great. He did things differently than anyone before him in terms of voicing chords and his rhythmic comping. He combined a very modernist, almost abstract construction of lines in his solos with funky stuff, which was a very interesting combination. He always kept his music rooted in the blues, basically, and yet he was a very advanced thinker. When I look at the solos theyíve transcribed from 1963, they still warrant a considerable amount of study to figure out how he got to that level. He was playing several levels above most piano players, in my opinion, in terms of interpreting ĎAutumn Leaves,' or something like that. Just really a modernist, not tied down to the usual way of approaching a tune with two- five-one chords and four bar phrases and things, he was just really advanced for the early sixties. He really took bebop and his influences to a much more advanced level, and weíre still learning from it."

Dave Marcellin - "Heís born on the same day as me (April 12)! Heís a great bebop player, but he showed that you can stretch out and play other forms like fusion and funky music. He showed the fact that it was ok to play popular music and funk, but yet be a great jazz player. He influenced a lot of young people by showing that you gotta know how to play the real music first, and then you can adapt it to the other forms."

Bobby Lyle - "Herbie definitely changed the landscape, because he was able to bring a multi-faceted approach to it. He can do the esoteric thing. He started out as a young man with Miles Davis and got deeper into the harmonies and the bi-tonal concepts. But then he can also break out funky, and bridge that gap. Since thatís kind of my whole approach to jazz piano as well, I really felt a bonding with Herbie. He approaches it like I do in that any type of music is fair game, and basically what you do is lend your style and personality to it. Herbie does that as well as anybodyís ever done it."

Pamela York - "The main thing that stands out to me is his incredible imagination. His touch and his sense of swing are unsurpassed. That gives him the ability to make things sound so fresh. When I listen to his recordings from the 60ís, and all throughout his career, they never have that dated sound. Plus he can find something new to say with every band he plays in. All of that has really inspired me."

Ian Varley - "The types of things that he did, nobody was doing before him. He invented a whole new vocabulary as far as the funk and jazz style of piano playing. Not to mention the tunes he wrote, which were just total rock solid tunes. Herbie has done more for advancing the state of jazz fusion playing and jazz fusion harmony than anybody. He came out of straight-ahead, and when he started incorporating the funk elements into the jazz playing that he was doing, it was light years beyond anything that anybody else was doing at the time. And his voice as a player is so distinctive. When you hear Herbie playing on a track, you know immediately that itís Herbie."

Joe LoCascio - "Along with Bill Evans, Herbie has defined the modern school of jazz piano. He is the model that we (pianists) measure ourselves by. You can hear the influences in Herbieís playing, Bill Evans among them, but also Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. He was able to bear those influences, but define a new direction in his own playing. Of course, the stuff with Miles was groundbreaking, but he was the penultimate sideman in the 1960ís on all those great Blue Note sides. And Iím not even crossing over into his contemporary stuff and his genius as a producer and composer. Thatís another area entirely. Iím just talking pianistically. Like any great innovator, he manages to maintain the integrity of the idiom while defining a new direction."

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"Directions in Music" is the name under which Herbie Hancock is performing with Roy Hargrove and Michael Brecker. Rounding out the group will be Terri Lynn Carrington on drums (another formidable band leader in her own right) and Scott Colley on bass. The show is billed as celebrating the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Expect updated versions of classics like "Naima," "So What," and "Impressions."

Saturday, March 22, 2005, 8:00 p.m. Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, Sold Out

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