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Herbie Hancock On Flying Lotus, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Miles Davis Biopic

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Photo: Douglas Kirkland.

Pianist Herbie Hancock has been a commanding force in jazz since his debut album "Takin' Off" was released on Blue Note Records in 1962. He was only 22. By the time he was 32, he had spent years on the road with trumpeter Miles Davis, written multiple film scores including the Antonioni classic "Blow-Up" and had embraced the radical wave of electrified keyboards which helped to drive his freer and funkier projects like the Mwandishi Band and the Head Hunters. By the time he was 42 he had reinvented himself again as an MTV popstar alongside a bevy of manic robots and he was not far from winning an Academy Award for the score to "Round Midnight."

Hancock has always kept his eye on the horizon and at 75 finds himself a Harvard professor, UNESCO World Ambassador, the chairman of the Thelonious Monk Jazz institute and a guest star on Flying Lotus' "You're Dead," one of the most innovative electronic albums of the past decade.

He spoke with Artbound by phone between tours of Europe and Australia about his gig in-between -- the Playboy Jazz Festival -- as well as his last forty years as a resident of Los Angeles.

The first time you played at the Hollywood Bowl was in 1964 with Miles Davis. Is that correct?

I guess. Ha ha. You don't think I'd remember that, do you?

How do you prepare to play an 18,000 seat outdoor venue?

There's no special preparation. I've played the Hollywood Bowl several times now. There's the realization that if it's the day time, the sun may or may not be out. Well, at the Hollywood Bowl the sun is usually out. It's going to be very different in that respect than in the evening. The Bowl is a huge place. Very often in the day time, especially at the Playboy Jazz Festival, people bring their families and they have picnics and it's very difficult to actually get the attention of the audience. In the evening, there is much more focus on the stage. That doesn't mean that artists can't get their attention but it takes a lot of work.

Is it frustrating to play in that situation?

It could be. It's a reality that exists. It goes with the program.

Are ballads out?

You've better have their attention already before you play a ballad. Maybe Tony Bennett could pull that off.

What factors do you consider when putting a program together with the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

It's a pretty large venue. You try to make a package that's going to have not just "popular jazz" but have a package that has some cutting-edge stuff with something else that has more of a name. I like the idea of exposing new music and concepts and new creative ideas to an audience. Not just make a cookie-cutter kind of program. I have great help in putting together with Laura Connelly who is my absolute right-hand person for the LA Philharmonic.

Is there anyone that you wish you could book but hasn't worked yet?

We tried to book Maria Schneider with her orchestra with Dave Holland's big band. I didn't want it to be a battle of the bands or anything. She turned it down. Maybe she wasn't able to do it. She's an amazing talent. I would love to have her on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl.

Herbie Hancock. | Photo: herbiehancock.com.
Herbie Hancock. | Photos: herbiehancock.com.

You moved to Los Angeles in the early 70s. What was the incentive to come to here at that time?

I had been living in New York for eleven years. When I would finish a tour and finally come back to New York, I wasn't looking forward to coming back to New York anymore. I had to analyze why. I think it was cause I always felt like I was surviving in New York. That was one reason. There was so much input, so many things going on that I needed some space to gather my thoughts and figure out my own take on things. When I came out to California to explore the possibility of moving here, I felt the difference right away. I've been able to have that space in order to find my own way. At the same time, Los Angeles was much cheaper to have a wonderful living space. The main thing was I feel like I'm living in LA rather than just surviving. There are trees around, not just big tall buildings. You can't beat the weather here. Even though it gets hot, it's still comfortable. It's comfortable even when it's 88.

Were you afraid that your career would suffer trading New York for Los Angeles?

No because I traveled a lot anyway. It didn't matter so much where I lived. I lived in apartments until I moved to LA. I've lived in the same house I bought in 1973. I moved here in December of 1972. In February or March, I bought this house. I can drive my car. I can swim in my pool.

There's a certain spirit of vitality here that I think that resonates with me. The friends that I have here are not friends out of desperation. We're close because of our heart. There's a kind of a bright light that kind of pervades the world from LA. It is it's own entity. A lot of things are generated from LA. A lot of great music is generated here. Some of it is in the hip-hop area not just jazz. Like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, for example.

You played keyboards on Flying Lotus' last album, "You're Dead." How did you become involved with him?

I had been asking around about young artists who were doing some cutting-edge things. All the young people said Flying Lotus is the guy. I finally got a chance to meet him. I find out that he has a family history in jazz. Alice Coltrane is his aunt. His mother was a jazz musician. I got a chance to meet him. We talked and I got to see his show which blew my mind. We began to interact. I hung out with him at his house and I met Thundercat, an amazing bass player with his own career. Besides talking we just started playing some stuff. Little bits and pieces of things. I didn't know what was going to happen with it. Some of it ended up being on "You're Dead" which is an astounding album.

Did you hope film work pick up for you when you moved to Los Angeles?

I never thought about it. Doing film scores is one of the things I do. I never considered it a major part of my career because I'm primarily a pianist, keyboardist and composer. I've done about ten film scores. I never focused on it as a major part of my career I never considered whether I'd get more film work living in Los Angeles.

It crossed my mind. Maybe there'll be more opportunities for film work. I never concentrated on whether I did or not. I certainly did more films but it didn't change that much. Before I moved here, I did two film scores: "Blow-Up" back in the mid-60s and then a film called "The Spook Who Sat By the Door," kind of a cult film. After I moved here, I did the other eight films.

Don Cheadle is making a bio-pic about your old boss, Miles Davis, called "Miles Ahead." Is it true you are contributing music to that project?

Not primarily me. I did one scene that I'm involved with playing [by] me and Wayne Shorter and some other musicians. Robert Glasper is the guy that is mainly doing the score.

Is someone portraying you in the film?

I don't know. I haven't seen it.

Herbie Hancock. | Photo: herbiehancock.com.
Herbie Hancock. | Photos: herbiehancock.com.

Would that be strange for you to see that?

Strange is not the word you are looking for.


Intriguing, maybe. I figured I couldn't play myself. I'm too old to play myself.

You are playing this weekend with students from the Thelonious Monk Institute. Since establishing their permanent campus in Westwood, the program has left quite an impact on the local scene.

There are so many innovative ideas that come from the Institute's association with UCLA. I think it's that flow of creative ideas that has attracted Herb Alpert. Herb is a major supporter of the Monk Institute. The music school is very excited about the thing's we are doing in our program. We are not just focussed on the kind of insular jazz music arena. We are looking at other arenas that jazz can impact or could be an interesting connection. For example, the medical and science field. What improvisation does to the human spirit and body, that could impact even religion. Los Angeles has been very receptive to the Monk Institute and its programs.

Are you surprised that the keytar didn't become a more widely embraced instrument?

I thought it might be more widely accepted by musicians than it is. The interesting thing is, every time I put it on at my performances there is always applause. I'm sure it's from the younger segment of my audience that comes to my concerts. The appeal is still there but I feel it from the audience but I don't see that many musicians picking up on it.

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