Having taken up the piano at age seven, Hancock quickly became known as a prodigy, soloing in the first movement of a Mozart
piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony
at the age of 11. After studies at Grinnell College, Hancock was invited by Donald Byrd
in 1961 to join his group in New York City, and before long, Blue Note
offered him a solo contract. His debut album, Takin' Off, took off after Mongo Santamaria
covered one of the album's songs, "Watermelon Man." In May 1963, Miles Davis
asked him to join his band in time for the Seven Steps to Heaven sessions, and he remained with him for five years, greatly influencing Miles
' evolving direction, loosening up his own style, and, upon Davis
' suggestion, converting to the Rhodes electric piano. During that time, Hancock's solo career blossomed on Blue Note
, as he poured forth increasingly sophisticated compositions like "Maiden Voyage," "Cantaloupe Island," "Goodbye to Childhood," and the exquisite "Speak Like a Child." He also played on many East Coast recording sessions for producer Creed Taylor
and provided a groundbreaking score to Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up, which gradually led to further movie assignments.
Having left the Davis
band in 1968, Hancock recorded an elegant funk album, Fat Albert Rotunda, and in 1969 formed a sextet that evolved into one of the most exciting, forward-looking jazz-rock groups of the era. By then deeply immersed in electronics, Hancock added Patrick Gleeson
's synthesizer to his Echoplexed, fuzz-wah-pedaled electric piano and clavinet, and the recordings became spacier and more complex rhythmically and structurally, creating their own corner of the avant-garde. By 1970, all of the musicians used both English and African names (Herbie's was Mwandishi). Alas, Hancock had to break up the band in 1973 when it ran out of money, and having studied Buddhism, he concluded that his ultimate goal should be to make his audiences happy.
The next step, then, was a terrific funk group whose first album, Head Hunters, with its Sly Stone
-influenced hit single, "Chameleon," became the biggest-selling jazz LP up to that time. Handling all of the synthesizers himself, Hancock's heavily rhythmic comping often became part of the rhythm section, leavened by interludes of the old urbane harmonies. Hancock recorded several electric albums of mostly superior quality in the '70s, followed by a turn into disco around the decade's end. In the meantime, Hancock refused to abandon acoustic jazz. After a one-shot reunion of the 1965 Miles Davis Quintet
(Hancock, Ron Carter
, Tony Williams
, Wayne Shorter
, and Freddie Hubbard
sitting in for Miles
) at New York's 1976 Newport Jazz Festival, they went on tour the following year as V.S.O.P.
The near-universal acclaim of the reunions proved that Hancock was still a whale of a pianist; that Miles
' loose mid-'60s post-bop direction was far from spent; and that the time for a neo-traditional revival was near, finally bearing fruit in the '80s with Wynton Marsalis
and his ilk. V.S.O.P.
continued to hold sporadic reunions through 1992, though the death of the indispensable Williams
in 1997 cast much doubt as to whether these gatherings would continue.
Hancock continued his chameleonic ways in the '80s: scoring an MTV hit in 1983 with the scratch-driven, electro-influenced single "Rockit" (accompanied by a striking video); launching an exciting partnership with Gambian kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso
that culminated in the swinging 1986 live album Jazz Africa; doing film scores; and playing festivals and tours with the Marsalis
brothers, George Benson
, Michael Brecker
, and many others. After his 1988 techno-pop album, Perfect Machine, Hancock left Columbia
(his label since 1973), signed a contract with Qwest
that came to virtually nothing (save for A Tribute to Miles in 1992), and finally made a deal with Polygram in 1994 to record jazz for Verve
and release pop albums on Mercury
Well into a youthful middle age, Hancock's curiosity, versatility, and capacity for growth showed no signs of fading, and in 1998 he issued Gershwin's World. His curiosity with the fusion of electronic music and jazz continued with 2001's Future 2 Future, but he also continued to explore the future of straight-ahead contemporary jazz with 2005's Possibilities. An intriguing album of jazz treatments of Joni Mitchell
compositions called River: The Joni Letters was released in 2007 and won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2008. Two years later, Hancock released his The Imagine Project album, recorded in seven countries with a host of collaborators including Dave Matthews
, and Wayne Shorter
. He was also named Creative Chair for the New Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2013, he was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award, acknowledged for his contribution to American performing arts. An expanded tenth anniversary edition of River: The Joni Letters was released in 2017, and he continued to perform regularly. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi