This Month’s Highlights

All That Jazz

Columns | Jean-Pascal Vachon | September 2008

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock (Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston)

"Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him." (Miles Davis)

When the movie Hancock opened in Vienna, I was bewildered: Herbie Hancock is a fantastic musician but could his life be fascinating enough to put on the big screen, with Will Smith in the title role? Then, of course, I realized that this movie was just another action flick, not about "my" Hancock at all… So much for my dream of seeing Hollywood interested in the lives of great American musicians...

But even if Herbie Hancock isn’t Hollywood material (yet), he achieved something last February that hasn’t happened in 43 years: He won the Grammy Album of the Year award for a disc that was a 100% jazz. Imagine: the last time a jazz album won the Album of the Year Grammy – Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto for "Getz/Gilberto", including the mega hit "The Girl from Ipanema" – Kennedy had just died, Churchill was still alive, de Gaulle was president and the Berlin Wall had just been erected...

Could it be that… jazz was finally getting the respect it deserves?!? Could creative music finally (again!) be… gulp… popular?!?

The Grammy couldn’t have been given to a more deserving figure in music. For more than forty years, Herbie Hancock has maintained his position as a giant in the field. Hard to believe the ever youthful looking Hancock has been around for so long…

From the seminal Miles Davis’ Quintet to his own groups that have produced so many classic albums on the legendary Blue Note label during the 60s, to the "funk meets electronic" phase of the seventies (who can forget the now classic album ‘Head Hunters’), the neo-classicism of his V.S.O.P. band, to ‘Rock It’, the first-ever major hit featuring scratching and other turntablist techniques in 1982, without forgetting film music (‘Blow Up’, ‘Round Midnight’ for which he won an Oscar), music for TV… Herbie Hancock has always been there, zig-zagging between acoustic jazz, electronic and R&B.

Why this constant need to move?

"I had the great advantage of working with Miles Davis back in the 60s, who encouraged his young musicians to explore, to take chances, to go outside the box. And I’ve never forgotten those lessons," he said in an interview with Wired News last October. "So I’m not dependant on staying in the same place. I like the idea of trying something new. I always try to find a way to challenge myself in some way that I feel is valuable to my development."

Hancock’s latest project revolves around author and singer Joni Mitchell. Is Mitchell a jazz singer? Well, not per se.

"If she’s not a jazz singer, I don’t know who is," affirms Hancock. "Her harmonies are much closer to jazz than they are to pop or folk."

The album that resulted is called ‘River: The Joni Letters’ and came out toward the end of 2007. Because Herbie Hancock likes to mix universes that might otherwise seem irreconcilable, one can hear Joni Mitchell’s words sung by Norah Jones, Luciana Souza, Tina Turner (yes!) and Mitchell herself or recited by Leonard Cohen (who, coincidentally, will be in Vienna for two concerts on Sept. 23 and 24) together with a top-notch jazz combo (Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland…), lead by Herbie Hancock.

For the two concerts in for Vienna on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, Hancock’s sextet will comprise trumpeter Terence Blanchard, one of the young lions of the 80s now a sensitive and mature artist with Spike Lee soundtracks on his C.V., bassist James Genus, young talent Kendrick Scott on drums, Swiss-born harmonicist Grégoire Maret, who has wowed jazz fans as a member of Cassandra Wilson’s group and, finally, one of jazz most recent discoveries, Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke who will show why his name is on everyone’s lips.

What shall we expect? Hard to tell: when you’re facing someone who has been at the center of jazz, funk and pop for almost half a century, anything can happen. Judging by the somewhat ‘unplugged’ line-up, the funk part of his career might be eclipsed by a return to some of his sixties warhorses with touches from his latest projects with maybe some standards. But again: who knows! That’s what’s fun about jazz: to expect the unexpected.

Among other interesting concerts taking place in September, we should mention the Archie Shepp Quartet at Porgy & Bess

( at the festival ‘Began in

Africa’. There’s also the two-day festival Spot On:

Jiddischkeit ( featuring different musical cosmos all rooted in Judaism with the participation, on the jazz side, of the Avishai Cohen Trio, pianist Yaron Herrman and clarinetist David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness (with the mad scientist of Klezmer Music,


Musicologist Jean-Pascal Vachon teaches at Webster University Vienna and gives lectures on the history of music at various venues around the city. In addition, he also contributes texts and works as a translator for the Swedish

classical label BIS.

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