UNESCO names pianist Herbie Hancock “goodwill ambassador”

Pianist Herbie Hancock has been appointed a “goodwill ambassador” by UNESCO. The 71-year-old multiple Grammy winner, Chicago-born child prodigy, Miles Davis’ keyboards man ushering open-form improvisation, electronic instruments and studio procedures into the past half-century of jazz-based music and talent scout with global interests joins an international coterie that currently includes Nelson Mandela, Pierre Cardin, Claudia Cardinale, Forest Whitaker, Jean Michel Jarre and royal personages from Belgium, Jordan, Morocco and Thailand.

A composer, interpreter, performer, soloist and bandleader of serious, sophisticated and also commercial crossover success — one of the rare musicians who is both artist and entertainer, leader and accompanist, classicist and innovator — Hancock will “use music to cross cultural boundaries and promote literacy and creativity among youth around the world.” He calls for April 30 to be recognized as “international jazz day” and will lobby for UNESCO to cite jazz on its World Heritage List of “936 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.”

Hancock’s evergreen-hip, vamp- and ostinato-based tunes such as “Watermelon Man” (written in 1962, re-arranged in ’73), “Chameleon” (issued in ’73, basis of garage jam sessions ever since), “Rockit” (the ’83 injection of hip-hop turntablism to the future-funk mix, marketed with an eye-grabbing video) and “Cantaloupe Island” (from the 1963 recording, Hancock and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard sampled to make US3’s “Cantaloop” a dancefloor smash in ’93) have intrigued musicians as well as listeners over four decades. So has his virtuosic, spontaneous pianism, which runs the gamut: cool-to-the-point-of-minimal, inquisitive, expansive and engaged, rhythmically energized or rhapsodic, post-modernly self-conscious or really, truly, freely free (hear him with Miles at the Plugged Nickel, 1966.

Hancock’s 1998 album Gershwin’s World is an excellent example of his range. It includes his performance of Gershwin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, second movement and Prelude in C# Minor with soprano Katheleen Battle, alongside renditions of “St. Louis Blues” with Steve Wonder playing harmonica, “Embraceable You” sung by Joni Mitchell, a piano duet with Chick Corea and a couple of relatively straightahead tracks for a combo with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, his collaborator of nearly 50 years. But even that recording skips several of Hancock’s interests.

Besides popularizing the Fender Rhodes electric piano on Davis productions Filles de Kilimanjaro and In A Silent Way, Hancock introduced synthesizers (at first programmed and played by Dr. Patrick Gleeson) to jazz with his Mwandishi band. He’s worked with Latin percussionists (“Watermelon Man” was originally a hit for Mongo Santamaria). He’s had a longtime interest in Brazilian music, recording with Milton Nascimento, on video with Gal Costa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. River: The Joni Letters was only the second jazz recording ever to win the Grammy nod for Album of the Year, in 2008.

My desert island choice of Hancock’s music is Maiden Voyage, released in 1965. Discovering it when I was 16 led me to his just-previous Emperyan Isles and many subsequent recordings by Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (his colleagues in Miles’ great quintet), Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers, Dexter Gordon, and more. In this clip he wades in gradually, is bouyed by Carter (bass) and Willians (drums), then welcomes Hubbard and saxophonist Joe Henderson.

Hancock has been in the front line of modern jazz piano evolution, following from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor to Andrew Hill, Joe Zawinul, McCoy Tyner, Paul Bley, Mal Waldron, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett. On Crossings and Sextant he entered synthesized spheres only Sun Ra had dared before. He’s said his early adoption of multiple keyboards and processors was informed by his college studies of electrical engineering.

Hancock’s understanding of jazz-funk-fusion and openness to producer Bill Laswell’s hip-hop beats, and most recently his song collections with casts of famed singers, have kept him in the public eye. So have his mid ’80s PBS/BBC video show Rockschool, his movie work (Blow Up, Death Wish, Round Midnight), his chairmanship of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, his sponsorship of emerging talent like guitarist Lionel Loueke and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Wynton Marsalis first recorded for Columbia Records in Herbie Hancock’s band.

I dig Hancock’s lesser-known Village Life, a duet with Senegalese griot Foday Musa Suso, and recommend Gershwin’s World and River. His current album, The Imagine Project, is ultra multikulti, with collaborators Dave Matthews, Céu, Pink, John Legend, The Chieftains, Los Lobos, Tinariwen, K’Naan, Anoushka Shankar. It appeals to a different crowd than that to which the pianist played on his just concluded European tour featuring tenor saxist Shorter and bassist Marcus Miller, Davis’s late-career electric bassist and producer.

In September Hancock has several California dates with his his piano-guitar-bass-drums quartet, and in November he’s scheduled three Pacific Northwest performances with orchestras of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. He is also the current “creative chair for jazz” of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His activities as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador are not yet posted. Presumably he’ll keep doing what he’s been doing, even more selflessly and world-wide.


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