The pianist, composer and music ambassador Herbie Hancock is working on new music with a new band, and he's about to present the first taste of it in live performance.
Next Thursday, Aug. 11, Hancock brings a new lineup to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., for an outdoor concert. (He's to be joined by Terrace Martin on saxophone and keyboards, Lionel Loueke on guitar, James Genus on bass and Trevor Lawrence Jr. on drums.) Hancock says he expects to play some ideas that he's been working on for a new record, which he's hoping to release next year. NPR Music and WBGO will record and film the show for a later broadcast on Jazz Night In America.
In advance of that concert, Simon Rentner, who hosts a program called The Checkout on WBGO, sat down to interview Hancock. Their conversation touched upon the connection between Flying Lotus and Miles Davis, some special guests on the forthcoming album and what he's doing with NASA. Here's an excerpted transcript of their conversation, which you can hear in full via WBGO. Rentner started by playing an excerpt of an interview with Flying Lotus.
That brought me back to the opening passage of your memoir, Possibilities, Herbie, where you were in concert with the Miles Davis Quintet in the mid-'60s, where you played the wrong notes. But Miles Davis gave you a nod of confidence nevertheless.
That was an amazing event. I'll never forget that. Because that was the hottest night of the whole European tour. The band was smokin' and we had the audience in the palm of our hands. And at the peak of the evening, I played this chord that was really completely wrong, right? And Miles just took a breath and then he played some notes, and it made my chord right — it made it fit into the flow of things. And it took me many years to find that, what had actually happened.
And the truth of the matter is I realized, finally, that Miles didn't judge my chord. Like, no judgment whatsoever. He just heard it as something that happened, and dealt with it, and found these notes that worked. And that's a very important lesson that I've learned and applied — not only to music, but I apply it to life.
But it seems like you're applying it even to this Flying Lotus session, where you guys are on the edge, right?
I had no idea actually what we were doing at the time, and when I first went over to his house to record something, I didn't have any preconceived idea. And I know that a lot of things have changed, of course, since the older days of recording, but the way I was used to recording, in a recording studio and preparing everything in advance — I knew, now, things have changed a lot with young people since then. And so, I wanted to find out how he records. And I learned a lot actually, working with Steve Ellison, Flying Lotus. And, I really enjoyed it, you know.
It was funny because I heard this drum track that he had just — he didn't say anything, he just started playing it from his computer. And, then he said, "You think you might be able to put something on [this track]?" I said, "Sure." So I started looking for something to do that would relate to what would essentially sound like a drum solo. And I found some phrases that kind of worked. And he put the whole thing on a loop, but after a few minutes, I began to notice that something I played was on a loop. I just kept going, and coming up with some other ideas, and he was recording them, and then certain things he would kind of snatch. In that loop. And then later on he would slice and dice and put it all together and made it part of the track called "Tesla."
Really, the new ingredient [in your new band] — I just had him on my show — was Terrace Martin, the saxophonist, who's a part of [Flying Lotus'] posse.
Yeah, Terrace and I have been working together almost every day on different things, for the record. And he's coming to Brooklyn for the concert.
And when's this record coming out?
I don't know [laughing]. I'm shooting for the spring, but I'm not putting a time limit on it. It's going to come out when it's ready.
So Terrace Martin and I agreed in our interview together that every time you do drop a new project, it is kind of an event, at least in the jazz music community. Everybody perks up and wants to listen to it right away. So what kinds of things are you messing around with, technologically speaking? Flying Lotus also said that you're incessantly curious about what's going on today. So what are you doing new with this project?
Well, I'm working with a lot of young people, many of them are friends of Flying Lotus and Terrace Martin. Like Thundercat, the bassist. And also Robert Glasper, who--
Who's on the bill with you at Prospect Park.
Right, exactly, great, he's an amazing musician. And ... well, Terrace plays not only alto saxophone, he also plays keyboards and he also works with the vocoder. He also plays drums but I don't know if he's going to play drums on the record. Trevor Lawrence, is one of the drummers that I've been working with on this record, Vinnie Colaiuta is another one, Jamire Williams — he's also been working on some of the tracks.
And all of these guys are just a joy to be around.
But I also have, from England, Jacob Collier. He came over.
He was recently in our studio. He played the [Hammond] C-3 organ for the very first time.
He did! What a great talent that guy is. Amazing.
So he's [helped to] invent this software at MIT where he's able to make six- or 12-part harmony in real time. Are you messing with that as well?
He brought it over and he was doing that when he was here, as well as playing keyboards. We haven't finalized anything, but that's a prototype that he's still working on. And yeah, it's a lot of fun.
Also in this Flying Lotus interview, he told me that you were sending music ideas to different planets, and to space. Can you elaborate on that?
[Laughing] He's talking about the Juno project. It's something I'm doing with NASA and Jet Propulsion Lab[oratory]. You know, JPL. I don't know if you heard about, but I'm sure many of your listeners have heard about the spacecraft that was sent from here to the planet Jupiter, that is now orbiting Jupiter. It's going to make 33 orbits and then it's going to make a third of an orbit as it crashes into the planet, but meanwhile it's sending information in the form of tones back to the earth, and a lot of what is involved has to do with overtones, and the overtone series, with a lot of their scientific data. So the reference of 33 and 1/3 orbits, you know, revolutions, like, 33 and 1/3 rpm vinyl records. And even the shape of the Juno spacecraft — it's got the solar paneling and one of the panels almost looks like the arm of a record player.
So, there are so many references to music with the tones and the overtones that they thought, in order to draw more attention to the fantastic work that's being done, and the space technology, and there's a lot of interest in, not just the planets, but in the galaxy and the universe — they realized that there's a musical component that relates directly with all of these things. So they came to me with the idea of putting something together with various artists to kind of promote this and particularly for young people. You know, stimulate interest in science and space.
And can we hear this? Is this out?
No no no, it's something that's going to be ongoing, and they're working with Apple on the majority of this project, so I don't know all of the details because I'm just one of the people involved, but it's pretty much under NASA's and Apple's wing. So I imagine that Apple Music is very much involved. And I was there for the actual event where the spacecraft finally went into orbit, where it had to slow down at exactly the right time, and when it had to do what it does to go into orbit around Jupiter, into the orbit they wanted. I mean, all those things were done to a T. They missed one thing, by .7 seconds. Everything else was absolutely on point. And that .7 seconds was negligible, so it was a complete success. They were even shocked that it would be so successful.
I want one story about a new song that you're premiering, and if there's a story attached to it. Give us something.
Let me say this. I wanted to tell you that, when I worked with Miles Davis, which was from 1963 to 1968: Toward the latter part of those essentially five-and-a-half years with Miles, how Miles recorded began to change. And it relates very much to how young people often record today — you know, the cutting-edge people, the people I'm working with. One of the major obvious differences is that technology is different. You record on hard drives now, which are very, very inexpensive compared to the cost of tape, which was expensive and very limited. And you can record now in your home studio, your house, or your hotel, and make a professional recording because the technology has changed so much.
But what Miles used to do with tape and a limited number of 24 tracks is very much related to how they record today. We'd go into the studio, there might be some germ of an idea, a couple of bars of some chord symbols, with a little melody fragment. And Miles would start off asking me to play. He would say "Play that!" [impersonating Miles] and I'm thinking "What, what is it?" It's only two or three bars of — I don't even know what this is. So I would play it. Anyway, that would start a flow of ideas from Miles, a suggestion maybe from Tony Williams, or from Wayne [Shorter], or Ron Carter.
So that very fragmented way of approaching and layering that Flying Lotus does on his record -- that's what Miles was doing, is what you're saying, basically?
We would, wound up, maybe not with a real melody, maybe just jamming over some chord changes and it would just sound like the extension or development of some fragments. I never knew what it was going to be, but when the record would come out, there would be a melody, there would be a basic kind of structure. But they would do it after we recorded it.
Which, as you were saying, is very much like what's done today. You actually start with recording and start with basically jamming. That's what we've been doing with a lot of this, on my record. And we did with Flying Lotus on "Tesla." ... Since my record is not finished, what might be the germ of an idea on our performance is kind of based off of that approach to making music for recording and for performing live.
And that's what we're going to hear in Prospect Park on Aug. 11 — a germination of a fragment?
There will be different things. I'm going to be playing some of my — what would be considered my classic pieces. I have a lot to choose from. I've been recording since 1962 — that's when I made my first record. So I haven't decided what all the pieces I'm going to be playing. And we have a lot of writers on the stage. Lionel is an amazing writer. Terrace is an amazing composer and producer. James Genus is full of ideas. Trevor Lawrence is also full of ideas because he's an amazing producer, too. So, much of what you're going to be hearing will be heard for the first time, so those are going to be fresh moments.
The elements I didn't mention about this record: There are lot of people from different cultures, from different parts of the world, that will be involved with this record.
Give me some names.
Well, Lionel Loueke is one. We're just not ready for what he has to offer yet. And there's a guy named Dhafer Youssef that I'm reaching out to, who plays the oud and sings. Zakir Hussein, amazing tabla master from India — he agreed to be on the record. Oh, I should also say, Wayne Shorter agreed to be on the record. I'm reaching out to make this record have a sense of bringing the culture of the world together. Because those are the times we live in today. That really is the 21st century.