I interviewed Herbie Hancock by telephone on the 19th of July, 2007. We spoke for around half an hour about his forthcoming Quartet tour to Japan, his then soon-to-be-released, Joni-Mitchell-inspired album “River: The Joni Letters,” and his Buddhist faith.
CBL: Hello, is that Herbie?
HH: Yeh, hi.
CBL: This is Colin Liddell phoning from Japan.
HH: Hi there, how ya doing?
CBL: Yeh... This is the International Herald Tibune Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and it’s about your tour here in October, and, basically, just a very general article about you, maybe focusing on what the fans can expect when you come over. OK?
CBL: I’d just like to ask you first, apart from doing press interviews as you are at the moment, what else have you been doing recently?
HH: I’ve been working on a new record of my own. Actually, we hope to ship in September. It’s really finished and I just approved the master’s reference copy. It’s called “Rivers.”
HH: “River.” And basically the songs are all by Joni Mitchell, from her library of compositions, except for two songs that she didn’t write, and those two are on the record because one of them had a big influence on her when she was very young. That’s the tune “In My Solitude” a recording that Billie Holiday made. When she nine or ten she heard that and it really moved her it really touched her. It had a decided effect on her. By the way, when you hear her sing today you hear a lot of Billie Holiday in it.
CBL: On the actual album, is it mainly instrumental or is there actually any singing on it?
HH: Yes, it’s almost half and half. Nora Jones sang a track, Tina Turner sang a track, Corinne Bailey Rae did one [garbled], Luciana Suza did one and also Joni sang one of her pieces “The Tea Leaf Prophecy.” It’s a completely different version. And also there is one that is spoken word, one where the lyrics from one of her songs is just spoken, and it’s by Leonard Cohen.
CBL: So, Leonard Cohen also features on the album?
HH: Yes. That piece is actually a duo piece. He speaks the lyrics to the song and I improvise the piano accompaniment.
CBL: Between his words or at the same time?
HH: At the same time. It’s sort of like the soundtrack of the words.
CBL: He’s living in the mountains somewhere near Los Angeles in some sort of monastery, I heard.
HH: Yeh. Actually we didn’t do it at the same time. I had to do it after him, because I was actually on tour when he did it. He didn’t want to be in the studio with me.
CBL: We don’t want to say that!
HH: He didn’t want to do it at exactly the same time, because he wanted to be able to concentrate in it.
CBL: What was it that attracted you to this album and also to Joni Mitchell’s songs?
HH: Because her lyrics are genius, incredible poetry. They are real poetry. We called it “River” because it is the name of one her songs, the one that Corinne Bailey Rae does. But river is a metaphor for flow…
CBL: For intransience
HH: Yeh. It’s very peaceful and calm but yet there are ripples in it too. And just like water… Water takes the shape of the container that it is in. It doesn’t have a specific… We are hoping that the container will be the person that he is in, do it their own way.
CBL: It has this flexibility this ability to assume many forms and transcend many situations. So it’s a kind of philosophical reference or resonance.
HH: Right. Exactly. And what I took on as a challenge for this record was the idea of the lyrics really being the driving force, the focus for the performances, and, when we first started putting the ideas together for the record, my intention was really to get into the lyrics and find out what they mean, the circumstances under which she wrote the lyrics, what provoked her to write a particular song, whichever direction it took, anything about the inside of a particular song. And weeks of conversation I had with the record producer Larry Klein about that. And Larry actually was at one time married to Joni, so he knows a lot about her.
CBL: Maybe he knows too much about her.
HH: Ha ha ha! Maybe too much about her, right. The things that he had questions about, he’d call her up. They are very much friends. He’s produced many of her records, including a few of her more recent records.
CBL: How do her songs work with what you do? How does that spark you off? And what sort of things do you throw into the mix?
HH: Here’s what we did. When we went to actually record the tracks with the performers, Dave Holland on bass, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Lionel Lueke, a young African guitar player from Benin. We all had a copy of the lyrics and we sat in the engineer’s booth and we all discussed the lyrics before we recorded a note. Before every tune we would have a discussion about the lyrics and then kind of get a sense of our individual take on it or individual view.
CBL: or response to it?
HH: Right, exactly, and then we went in and recorded. And…
CBL: So you got all these different reactions to the lyrics and then you’re recording, because each individual reacts a bit differently…
HH: Right, and yet we played together. But the one thing we discussed is, the lyrics are in many cases stories that have a particular environment, and so we thought about what that environment might be. An example is the song “Edith and the Kingpin.” It’s about a club where this pimp walks in and it’s this place where pimps and prostitutes hang out, in a small town. And the band is playing but the band is not really that great a band. The lyrics say the band sound like typewriters – ha ha ha! – but the big man he spots Edith who is a young, fresh… She’s also a working girl too. It’s kind of hard. They kind of use each other.
CBL: With a lot of wit? From how you’re describing, it that almost sounds like a kind of comic situation.
HH: Well, it’s more like black comedy, I guess. Not really comedy. There’s a dark element to it, but it’s a story. This Edith is a new girl and the other girls are looking at her, and, like, they’re whispering among themselves. But then the pimp looks at her and he’s like ‘Mmmh alright,’ and so then the other girls, they start talking to her, telling her stories about him. ‘Watch out for this guy,’ and the next thing they are together. So there are characters in this, so, in a way, we took on the role of characters. For example Wayne Shorter mentioned…
CBL: Which character were you in that case?
HH: Wayne was the one that actually voiced the desire to kind of examine things that are in the room, like other conversations that are happening in the room. He might do a little bit of that. But when you actually go in to record, you don’t think about any of that. But, before, you kind of throw ideas up in the air and then hope that somehow it marinates. As far as a character, I didn’t actually think about a particular character. I was thinking more about the general environment.
CBL: That album, we could talk about it at great length, but it comes out in September and you’re touring here in October. Will that feature on the actual tour. Will you be using material from Joni Mitchell on the tour?
HH: That’s going to be very difficult. It’s possible. It might be possible to do one of the pieces. It’s a very different band. Not that very different. Wayne Shorter was on the project too but Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter were not. It’s possible that we could do something from that. That is if the guys from the band want to do that.
CBL: But mainly it’ll be reprising the VSOP and the Quintet era won’t it, I imagine from that line up.
HH: Well I would imagine that we’ll be touching on those places – VSOP, the Miles Davis experience – because all of us had at one time or another played with Miles. But one thing’s interesting. As well as we have known each other and recorded with each other, the four of us have never performed together. I mean I have performed with Ron and Wayne, but never with Jack DeJohnette.
CBL: He was over here not so long ago with Keith Jarrett.
HH: Oh? Yeh, yeh.
CBL: So, I managed to see him that time. You’re well known especially for working with Wayne. What other factors influenced this particular line up?
HH: One thing I wanted to mention. I’m pretty sure we won’t just play the old pieces. Wayne is a very prolific writer and I wouldn’t be surprised if he submits something either from his catalog or something new that we could examine. Perhaps Ron might have something. Let’s see when we get closer to the date. So far we haven’t had any sessions about it yet. So I’m only speculating about what we’re going to do. We have plenty of time to do that. I mean not plenty of time. We’ve got enough time. We’ve got three months.
CBL: You’ve played with different sizes of groups – quartets, quintets, sextets, whatever. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of playing in different sizes like that?
HH: Well it’s funny that you should mention that because just recently I had to, just for three gigs, switch from a format that I have had for the past say year, worked on for almost a year. I’ve been doing things kind of… no not a year, about half a year, more than half a year. For three quarters of a year, I have been doing quartet stuff with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, who was on the record, with Nathan East on bass, and Nathan’s also been singing some of the pieces from “Possibilities.” And I had to work as a Trio for three gigs because Vinnie wasn’t available, but Terri Lyne Carrington, who I have worked with for many, many years, she was available for drums. Nathan was available, but, like I said, it was a quartet before. Lionel Lueke was the guitar player, who was also the one on my new record, and he wasn’t available, so I played Trio with just Nathan and Terri Lyn. We were still able to do the pieces I had been doing as a Quartet. I pretty much decided to make a sequence of material and follow that sequence on a tour, on several tours. We were able to do that and still do some of the songs from my latest record “Possibilities” with Nathan singing. To answer your question, it gives, The Trio setting gives you a lot of space to kind of compose yourself to use the space as a non-phonic element in the sound, so it becomes part of the sound, the space.
CBL: It’s a very almost Japanese concept of space.
HH: Yeh, right, exactly.
CBL: This would be something that is maybe influenced by your Buddhism as well?
HH: Well, everything ties into the Buddhism, because that’s the first thing I do when I wake up to… as a foundation to shape my life in order to shape my day. But I know why you drew that reference, because the Buddhism I practice comes more directly from Japan, the concerts are in Japan, but in truth I don’t think of the Buddhism I practice as a Japanese religion anymore than we think of Christianity as a Middle Eastern religion or Judaism as a Middle Eastern Religion. For me Buddhism is a religion for people…
CBL: Yeh. It’s a very universal thing?
HH: Yeh, exactly.
CBL: It just hasn’t been overlaid by a certain rule-heavy Western rationalism, and that’s why it’s a very clear source of this Universal thing.
HH: Yeh, yeh, right. We don’t have rules for the particular Buddhism I practice.
CBL: I mean some people see analogies between Zen and jazz as well. Both things happening in completely different parts of the World…
HH: Right. I understand that. Zen is not the Buddhism I practice but I understand what your saying. Using the reference that you use, to me it sounds more like a traditional way people look at Buddhism. And the Buddhism I practice, is not Asian, it doesn’t have those same kind of references. It really, it’s so… because it’s about the human being, and human beings appear at different parts of the world, it gets shaped by the environment it happens to be in, so in America I wouldn’t say its American, but its not different from America.
CBL: Well it kind of comes back to that analogy of the river, doesn’t it? The water is everywhere but takes on different shapes according to the locale.
HH: RIGHT! Absolutely.
CBL: So, what about the essence of your Buddhism? How would you actually describe what’s important? What’s key in that, and, maybe, how does that also reflect itself in some of your music?
HH: That life, that everything – what I’m going to say is not so profound – but everything is connected, and that the Universe is actually in your life and that the practice of Buddhism is to support the deepest part of your life, which we call your ‘Buddha nature,’ and for you to experience what we call in Buddhism ‘human revolution,’ and that is the steps that need to be taken to remove the things that filter you from being able to reveal your true self. And that true self is one that relates in a very deep way to everything else in your environment.
CBL: What sort of things would prevent you from revealing your true self? What sort of factors would you include there?
HH: A lot of just external factors. The causes that you make. The Buddhism that we practice is about cause and effect. It’s about the law that is the foundation of everything, and the causes that you make through life – that are really moment to moment decisions that you make and turn into action – affect you in a certain way that can cloud over the true essence of your life, and it’s your responsibility as a human being to really discover who you are, and this Buddhism really helps you to do that so that you manifest your highest condition of life.
CBL: I can see how this is very relevant for somebody in your position, because, first of all, everything is connected and you’re very well known as a collaborator. You’ve worked with many people and many styles of music. So, musically, in that case, everything is connected, and also trying to find your true self, it’s sort of digging deep trying to find something fresh and original to say. So it resonates very well with your career doesn’t it?
HH: But it would resonate with any human being no matter what path you take in your life or whatever you be personally. Actually, [garbled] become happy for everyone, and to find the kind of happiness that would be a basis for peace throughout the World.