Herbie Hancock learned a lot from his time with Miles Davis, musically and also about being restlessly creative. After leaving Miles band before the earth-shaking Bitches Brew era, he headed off to release his own series of classics.
He had already carved a great space in modal music with his Blue Note recordings Maiden Voyage and Speak Like a Child, but then went on to record Fat Albert Rotunda and the classic Headhunters which solidified him as an all-time great in pretty much every aspect of the music. He was there at the start of MTV with the techno-funk-hip-hop-dance song Rockit, and the video (with Hancock barely visible) serves as a reminder of the stark racism present back in those early days of the music video revolution.
Since those days Herbie Hancock has remained in motion, working with Jack Dejohnette’s Parallel Realities supergroup, his own classic jazz groups, pairings with Chick Corea and other jazz legends, and continuing to advance his own brand of techno-laden danceable jazz with recordings such as ‘Dis Is Da Drum’ and ‘Future 2 Future’.
Then in 2005 Hancock came out with an album of duets called Possibilities. (Hey, everyone was doing it). The recording was a great commercial and critical success and landed Hancock two Grammy Nominations – and a live Grammy performance by him and Cristina Aguilera that serves as a reminder that some young singers really CAN sing! The album had loads of pop stars from Aguilera to Sting to Santana to John Mayer and more.
Possibilities was largely a pop record of the type Hancock had never done before, and wasn’t my sort of thing … but I attributed it to his restless spirit – especially as he had immediately reformed a New Headhunters group and taken to the road. The group didn’t produce a record, but I can attest first-hand that they produce some scorching great live performances.
In 2007 he was back with another star-studded pop-jazz release, this time a tribute to Joni Mitchell called ‘River: The Joni Letters’. This was a huge success and got a second round of big sales after sweeping out the Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Jazz Album and Album of the Year. Let me just quickly say that I found the record lackluster at best, with performances that only served to remind us how much better Joni does this stuff herself!
2007 was also a pretty big year for Joni Mitchell, as she was simultaneously being celebrated by Hancock and others she was working on her own recording – her first in nearly a decade. She was also being very frank about her opinions on the music industry as well as the fact that so many others had seen so much greater wealth from her work than she ever had.
Her 2007 record Shine came out at the same time as Hancock’s and was a decent hit and ended up with a Grammy for the opening instrumental vignette. At the time I bought both recordings and all I could think was ‘nice idea for a tribute, too bad it pales compared to the real deal’.
Yet is was the Hancock record that got all the acclaim – and the massive subsequent sales. I’d bet money that the majority of those post-Grammy sales haven’t seen any play-time in more than two years. But the flood of awards and cash from two consecutive recordings was surely enough to get everyone thinking – hey, let’s do THAT again!
So here we are in 2010 with ‘The Imagine Project’. I see that as having two meanings: ‘Imagine’ as in the John Lennon song, and Imagine how much money we can make by piling a bunch of people together on different songs and re-using songs that have been done thousands of times so they are instantly familiar.
Or at least that is how the record feels.
It might seem foolish that I grabbed this right away since I wasn’t a fan of either of Hancock’s last two commercial efforts. Yeah, it probably was – but I have stayed with Hancock throughout many, many years of ups and downs. But now I am reconsidering my loyalty after such a wooden set of crassly commercial performances.
My intent was to do a full review for this recording … but I can’t do it. I am not going to detail all of the songs here – there is really not much worth mentioning. There is an over-wrought Imagine with Pink and Seal that transforms into something else halfway through but never really works. Keeping to the Beatles’ theme there is an awful version of Tomorrow Never Knows with – get this – Dave Matthews singing! Yeah, I *KNOW*! Then there is another dreadful re-imagining of a classic song with an Irish vocalist names Lisa Hannigan tearing up ‘The Times They Are Changing’.
And on and on. Hancock’s piano work and some of the instrumental stuff works well enough, and there are occasional glimpses of stuff that might work – such as Tempo De Amor which has a nice feel, solid interplay and a heart-felt lyric. That, however, is sadly a rarity on this dreary outing.
But it is all too shallow and contrived. It reminds me of the Frank Sinatra duets from the early 90’s where no one was ever in the studio with Sinatra – and it showed in the outcomes! These songs feel liked they were messed with for novelty, the performances are uniformly weak – and singers like Pink and Dave Matthews are simply not up to the task.
The image I made for this – instead of using the record cover – was a juxtaposition of Herbie Hancock on the record cover to the classic ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention (itself a parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper). I thought it fitting since this whole recording feels like a ‘paycheck session’.
Let’s close with something much more fun – the music video for Rockit! This song was hated by jazz purists, but I have always loved it – it is catchy, inventive, innovative, and has a great overall feel. There is more ‘Imagination’ to enjoy here than you can ever hope to find in Hancock’s dreadful new project.