Herbie Hancock is a formidable force of experimentation, whether through his work in one of Miles Davis’ most adventurous ensembles, his own albums as a band leader that placed him in jazz’s top tier, or electronic hip-hop singles such as “Rockit” that kids grooved to. If you’ve ever danced to his first penned hit, “Watermelon Man” by Mongo Santamaria, that would be enough.
In his time behind the piano, organ, synthesizer, and sequencer, Hancock, 77, has crafted music that has rolled through classical, jazz, avant-garde, funk, electronica, rap, and world music, all with equal daring. Currently recording an album that promises to capture the spacey sonic mood of the moment (he neither confirmed nor denied collaboration with Flying Lotus and Pharrell Williams), Hancock will visit the Kimmel Center on Wednesday with a program that will “incorporate many of the new album’s elements into this live show … It’s very worldly.”
I know you started playing piano in 1961 when [trumpeter] Donald Byrd asked you to join his group in New York City. Seriously, though: Why and how did you get the piano in the first place? It wasn’t jazz.
Man, you’re tough. That’s going back. And no, it wasn’t jazz. It was classical music. [My mother] wanted her kids to have quote culture unquote. And for her, that meant classical. Now, you have to think about the times, what with both of my parents being from Georgia. I didn’t become even remotely interested in jazz until I heard someone my age improvising on my instrument. Now, that was something I couldn’t do, or at least hadn’t done up until that point. There was a bass player and a drummer with him, and everyone playing seemed to be having fun. And everybody listening and watching them also seemed to be enjoying themselves — the music, the players’ enthusiasm. I wanted to learn how to do that.
You just wanted to have fun like any other kid.
Exactly. So I had to make the transition from being a classically trained musician to one who could swing and learn how to improvise.
Which meant learning how to think and feel on your feet. Or seat.
The funny thing was, I always had this analytical mind, so I tried to use analysis to help speed up the process, and it actually worked. I delved into listening to records with a microscope. Why does that version sound different than the way I play this phrase? Why is this note louder than the other? That’s how I was at the beginning, at least. My parents were playing Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie albums in the house. I really didn’t pay attention to all that. I was listening to ’40s rhythm-and-blues records. Then later, there was other stuff I liked that I studied to figure out how they did what they do: a Neal Hefti arrangement with Basie’s band, for instance. How and why did he arrange with those notes and those colors? Why are the trombones and saxes doing what they’re doing? When I was at Grinnell College, I had to put together a jazz concert. But how was I going to do a jazz concert in Iowa [laughs] with 15 people? Luckily, by that time I had a sense of phrasing … and how to play a part.
Like a theatrical role?
Yes. Enough so to teach that to someone else. I flunked all my other classes, but I passed that one, by cramming. The jazz concept was a big hit. I went back to my room there, looked in the mirror — I was an engineering major at the time — and I knew that a different choice had been made for me, my path, where I was going after that concert. To do music. Do or die.
Everyone always talks about you and Miles. What did you get from Mr. Byrd that you didn’t get from Davis?
It’s a long list — mainly, though, to improvise. I had only ever done so to slow songs, so I would marvel when I heard cats who could improvise quickly, manically. Donald said, “You just have to hear yourself doing it. You can’t play fast, because you’ve never heard yourself improvising fast. Once you hear it, you’ll remove the barrier.” So I wrote out several progression, choruses, and did just that that night. So then when Donald called out “Cherokee,” and bang, bang, I did it.
Age is a number. Do you still feel as boldly about going forward no matter what you do?
Definitely. I’m still as enthusiastic about everything as I was in my 20s. I think Buddhism has helped me maintain that kind of enthusiasm. … I have been able to rediscover my youth. It’s made a profound difference in my life and had dramatic input on the output of my music. I read about that in Buddhism, but, as I’ve progressed and made more music and more decisions I have found that to be true.
Not counting the new album, which comes out next year, you have 56 years’ worth of music to pull from. What are you playing when you get to Philly?
When I look at the audience, I see the other members of the band. I came to that through Buddhism. That was never apparent to me before that, but Buddhism revealed that to me. If I go out and play a duet with Wayne [Shorter, a fellow Buddhist with whom he played in Miles Davis’ classic quintet], the third member is out there in the audience. They or you have an effect on what we do. They become part of the work, you know. They are the environment. So in Philly, we’ll play some pieces that I’m kind of known for, but in radically different ways with new approaches that tease even newer music. It’s more of a cinematic storytelling way in to the older songs. There are new territories to lay flags, new roads to explore in what could be a familiar landscape. That’s how you make a live performance open and new.
8 p.m. Wednesday, Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. $126-$146, kimmelcenter.org