Reflections on Herbie Hancock's Imagine Project show- Flynn Theater, Friday June 3rd, 2011

It’s been over a week since the first concert I saw at the Discover Jazz festival (Burlington, VT) and, aside from being generally busy, there was so much new music and performance information that Hancock put out on that evening, that it seemed wiser to let the sensations percolate through thought and emotion for a while before sitting to reflect on the show in writing.

In fact, I only saw the second set but, on my way in to the theater I heard many on their way out exclaiming how amazing the show was, or seeming pleased that he had played so many old favorites. They were clearly leaving midway though, in droves.  

Something about this seemed strange since one of the reasons that folks attend his music is that he is a recognized musical “genius.”  That’s not really genius status by association or history, it comes from a track record of blowing peoples stodgy, musical perception, doors off the dirty hinges of their expectations.  His abilities to use music as a vast nuanced system of self expression, as well as it’s uses as a vehicle for voicing the  intentions or identities of cultural movements, seem beyond question at this point.  In fact, most who are looking for these “hits” can’t stop muttering on at the same time about... the Miles Davis quintet, where Hancock was such a singular contributor, where there were no hits, and where nothing could be expected.  Given that background, it seems ironic that the quality of one of his shows should be judged by the pleasures of favorites.  The fact that he had some late popular numbers like ‘Rockit’ puts his name recognition pretty high up, and that seems to enter an artist into a pool of consumers that dissociates the product from the artist so strongly that they think it is the job of the artist to re-create the artifact- the thing they have been exposed to. (I wonder if Michelangelo were still alive, whether there would be demand for delivering replicas of St. Peter’s Basilica in every open piazza managed by an important, but slightly parochial investor.)

In the lobby of the theater before the show, I took a few minutes to look at the fairly eye-opening interview with Herbie Hancock done by the Burlington Free Press.  It was easy to see that many of Hancock’s concerns with the Imagine project were tackling societal issues, for example, difficulties that people of the world are having in settling in to Globalization.  It was clear that he was setting up some sort of framework for a musical discussion about the exchange of international ideas.  He was also going to be using technology to make this possible in some way, and he described his fascination with technology beginning from when he was a kid.  He was also, he said, going to be interested in using songs, and also some of his old favorites which he was saying could be used to get the social ideas in the music to a wider audience.  

There is a fairly recent Hancock album involving popular artists and material, Possibilities. So, by description a lot of elements of the Imagine Project didn’t really seem like a development.  The message on Imagine Project, however, seemed to be much larger than merely collecting popular or world artists for straight music collaboration.

When I got inside the theater he had just embarked on what was to be an incredible piece of solo piano.  He was improvising an intriguing saga based on a very small motive.  It was so relaxed and it’s inside beauty really sat limpid in the air.  The amount of textures and moods he took it through were literally mind-boggling, but all the time it was paced in such a way that you never got the feeling that he was doing this to show you how good he is. Nor was he engaging in the sort of flashy moves that might re-assure you that you should be comfortable with his abilities.  Around him were a couple of very high tech synthesizers and a large computer monitor that was just pumping some screen saver or other.  For now though, he was engaged in playing a very old piece of technology, the piano; and that’s what that was in it’s early days, as big a piece of gee-whiz technology as the computers that this techie, Herbie Hancock, was seemingly poised to attack.

Later in the week  I read reviews by another writer in the Burlington Free Press who seemed to be indicating these moments in the show were meandering and aimless.  He said that no heads were bobbing. I wonder where this has become an indicator of value in absolutely every situation.  Especially from the man in front, Hancock, who could probably elicit an uncontrollable St. Vitus dance out of the asses of even the squarest of critics with a small syncopated gesture of his left hand.  

  Really his playing  of this piece was as doggedly thematic, but with variation, as anything by a high Viennese master, but I suspect a form of critics’ ADD prevented these commentators from being able to hear this.  To me, the one piece was worth the price of admission just for sheer musical stimulation and beauty but clearly both the concert goer and the artist were looking for this show to be about more. So back to the meanings...


Early on in his Burlington Free Press interview Hancock said this,

That’s one thing — how can we look at the possibilities for a globalized world?. What are the positives? What can we gain from a globalized world if the attention is focused in the best way? My feeling is if the ordinary person gets involved in the designing and creation of a new globalized world, then we can start taking advantage of the assets we’ll have when people of various nations and cultures are working together. They can create some new solutions and new visions for the future.”, it is laid out pretty quickly and plainly what sort of aims were in the musical project.  There are clearly meta-musical ideas and intentions involved here, but as is common the interviewer exposes the double bind in his own thinking. He seems to want music to have meaning and be important but becomes suspicious when it is going to be clearly used that way.  (It's possible he asked a fake baiting question to fish for further comment but it seems off the level of the rest of the piece.) The interviewer asked...


BFP: Is music a good vehicle for change? There’s always been some debate about that."


What’s the debate?  I don’t know what this interviewer meant.  Like a lot of writers he just assumes that you are to know what he means.  I suspect he hasn’t looked into it much.  A Google search of “music as a vehicle for change” or “the debate about music as a vehicle for change” finds that there isn’t much debate.  There is just an endless stream of overwhelming evidence that music most definitely is, and always has been, a vehicle for social change.

  Not that I haven’t heard comments made against musicians speaking about politics, or issues relating to ideas and the world - mostly from right wing media talking heads and under-educated, parochial American Congressional Representatives, but that isn’t really debate, it’s just one group trying to tell another that it fears to “shut-up!”  (Usually in the vicinity of these utterances they start muttering on about the threats to democracy and that there is a correct time and place for practicing freedom of speech but not when "x"...etc.)

  Anyway, back to the show.  After that solo piano piece the drum virtuoso, Vinnie Colaiuta, came back out with the bassist and a completely original take on Round Midnight was produced in front of our eyes.  I hadn’t seen Vinnie Colaiuta live before and it was powerful to see him develop improvisational ideas and waves of power with a language fairly devoid of jazz drum cliches.  The dialogue between he and Herbie seemed too mysterious to put back into language.  At least, I don’t have the ability, but I was learning by the nanosecond about some very concrete musical things.  It was penetrating and will live with me for a long time.  I read some other blog review reactions with people bemoaning the lack of “jazz”.  I don’t think they listen.  In those blog bits there usually follows proclamations and rhetoric about how great Miles’s quintet was etc.  I feel a bit sorry for the amount of time that Hancock has to blow dealing with his association with Miles Davis. In the BFP interview Hancock says of Davis,

“He [Davis] always encouraged us to work outside the box and to have the courage to go beyond what you know. He was the best teacher to have. He was supportive of that. He told us he paid us to work on stuff in front of the people, on the bandstand, on stage.

This makes you wonder again about learning, meaning, globalization, departments of newspapers.  After pointing this out about Davis, and what was learned from him, how can you really still be looking for renditions of the old. Especially out of a guy who openly admits to Davis having been such a big teacher and mentor?  Clearly the folks in the press and blogs still are looking for something as false as repertoire and re-enactment at the same time as they want original jazz music. Even here, at the Discover Jazz Festival, audiences were spending time watching repertoire bands re-enacting such things as “Bitches Brew.” (Audience members that I spoke to in Burlington described even that show as very intense, a little too intense, and pointed out that a good deal of the audience left that show as well.  I was thinking that if they wanted to get creative they could have designed a robotic Teo macero to make some editing decisions. Maybe even got a robotics expert to do an expose on how he might go about it.) Not that the musicians are a problem in these cases.  The musicianship is often epic, but what about the idea? What's the idea?  At least Herbie had one.

On with the show...

After Round Midnight he got up to announce some stuff about this “Imagine” project. He was going to do a version of Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan. The track that this band Vinnie Colaiuta, Herbie Hancock, Kristina Train, was going to play with had been constructed by The Chieftans.  The Chieftans weren’t there but Herbie pointed to the machine that was going to make the collaboration possible.  Quickly he showed that a new sort of live event was happening.  He was going to play with Irish musicians doing a Bob Dylan song, in the present.  The track had been put together previously by Hancock with the Chieftans specifically for Imagine.  Sampling and looping have been prevalent in the live arena for a long time but here he was going to move the idea forward by using complete tracks recorded for the specific purpose by other bands.  It was clearly a technical innovation but with meaning and with a deep spirit of giving.  Herbie humbly admitted that he didn’t realize that Dylan’s song was written with the Civil Rights movement in mind.  That was some admission!- but real pleasing because it helps put some things about music, politics, and the limited attention of even a great artist into perspective.  It is clearly possible to be working on the same movement, on two different fronts, without knowledge of all the players and modes of awareness-raising in view. It suggests the largeness of such a change in that period of the early 60’s.

Later, in the show he told another humble anecdote about working with an African band that reminded him of James Brown.  He spoke of his own naivete in questioning them about whether they had been influenced by James Brown.  They remarked that they hadn’t.  Herbie exposed his simplicity in missing that African music was, of course, the influence on James Brown and that really Africa was where all of us commonly originate.  There was the global theme again coupled with a possible common level of understanding that could give us an easy way to adapt to global community.


He also talked of the version of “Exodus” by Bob Marley played by Los Lobos and how well that group had “nailed’ it. He extolled the brilliance of David Hidalgo a couple of times.  Genre purists might have been horrified but that is because of a lack of ability to deal with meaning in music since here was a liberation piece by Marley, the musician that gained the most global traction ever, played by the greatest Chicano rock’n’roll and trad. band.  Now it was going to be used as a springboard for coloration and improvisation by a few of the greatest improvisors and a stage-present singer.

  There were some striking features to the way these songs were interpreted.  Primarily, it is a feature of Herbie’s playing all through his career.  He can create mood and coloration in very evocative ways, but primarily through different sorts of harmony and line rate.  He is amazing at relating songs because he can really instantaneously improvise madrigalist type “word-paintings,” and even create a moody backdrop for those pictures.  There were many examples.  A really noticeable one was a particular dropping line that showed up behind the Dylan number under the lyric “Sink like a stone.” (I read one bloggist comment that some songs should be left to the original artist. Peculiar since here was a novel harmonization and set of techniques not in the original, and not so obvious.)

  The other idea that was hanging was a sort of live loop/sample type update.  In this case rather than sample something old and finished, he had recorded current ensembles and artists tackling renditions of the things he wanted to present and then was playing live with those.  It was like suddenly panning out from a lick or sound that you might hear on a loop to what it’s larger, originating source was and going with the whole environment

  All things done, there were some interesting features to the show.  Strangely, I didn’t think the imagine project material as stirring as I wished it to be.  It’s messages were clear though, and some nice musical possibilities and directions for their conveyance were laid out.  Both in the extra-musical and in the sonic technique there was plenty of stuff to chew on; perhaps not forever but the intention was popular so I think we can enjoy the idea and move on.  I’m sure Herbie Hancock has already done that.

Nonetheless, I was surprised how strange some press reactions were.  Perhaps those looking for internal technical features are so uptight and tense that they can’t hear what they seek while it is occuring.  The same seems to be the case for people looking for music to be a vehicle for change.