Possibilities is an apt name for Herbie Hancock �s latest project, a wide-ranging collection of studio collaborations between the jazz legend and a multigenerational lineup of artists, from household names like John Mayer, Sting, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana and Trey Anastasio, to serious up-and-comers like Damien Rice, Joss Stone and Raul Midón . For Hancock, whose four-decades-plus career has been a model of fearless boundary stretching, this yearlong effort was an opportunity to interact, improvise, freely experiment and simply jam with a few famous old friends and many new artistic acquaintances. It wasn�t conceived as a string of high-tech hookups, with performers phoning in their contributions from separate ivory towers. Making the album was about old-school, anything-goes, face-to-face sessions�real time, real music, real emotions, real thrills.
�I was trying to make something truly collaborative,� Hancock emphasizes. � Possibilities is not just the result of interacting with the artists on a musical level, but on a life level. For example, during the Annie Lennox sessions, we talked for a couple of hours before we even played a note. We talked about everything from politics to humanism to religion, all sorts of things. And saw eye to eye on very much of it, especially on social issues. This was the kind of thing I wanted to air out so that when we finally sat down to make music there was a common ground on which we as people felt connected.�
Unlike Hancock�s 1998 GRAMMY® Award-winning Gershwin�s World, in which he was joined by vocalist friends Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder on interpretations of the George Gershwin repertoire, or the 1996 The New Standard, in which Hancock re-imagined contemporary rock material, Possibilities was a more open-ended undertaking. Hancock didn�t have in mind a specific composer whose work he wanted to explore or an overall concept he hoped to realize when he enlisted his many guest stars. He just had the desire for each of them to join him in leaving behind familiar territory, abandoning preconceptions and making a creative leap of faith.
�My taste is pretty broad, and my interest in exploration is pretty broad, too,� Hancock explains. �There are areas that I don�t know a lot about, but that I�m curious about. I decided to ask some artists who I think are quality artists in their area and see if they were interested in doing a project with me. I said, �Let�s make a wish list of artists and see what happens.� My feeling was, if there was some interest, they would have something of their own to bring to the table and I would have my experience to bring to the table. My foundation is in jazz, which is probably the strongest background you can have if you want to expand and interact with other genres. Playing jazz gives you a lot of tools to play with.�
Sting, for example, suggested redoing �Sister Moon,� from his Nothing Like the Sun album. Hancock knew that a few other cover versions already existed, so he suggested enlisting a young African guitar prodigy, Lionel Loueke, as the arranger in an effort to take the song in a new direction. A Benin native Hancock has been mentoring, Loueke is part of the new lineup of Herbie Hancock�s Headhunters '05, which also includes John Mayer, Roy Hargrove, and Marcus Miller. As Hancock recalls, � I knew Lionel has a great talent for arranging and I wondered if he could do something that would have an African spice to it but would not be so foreign to American taste that it would jar the audience that�s attracted to Sting�s music. Lionel knew exactly what I was talking about. He brought a real fresh sound to the guitar. And Sting, I never heard him sing like that before. His delivery was out of the park, a home run.�
On the other hand, John Mayer arrived at his studio session eager to create something new on the spot: �He had an idea when he came into the studio � some fragment or phrase � and we immediately started jumping on that, moving it around and developing it. We came up with a track and he did a kind of scratch vocal. He didn�t have any lyrics at first, so we really collaborated and put that song together. What he came up with could be a very strong single.�
At the end of the session with Mayer, Hancock not only had an ingratiating track, �Stitched Up,� but he�d found a new friend. Observes Hancock, �He�s a strong rhythm guitar player and a wonderful singer, a great voice. He�s really smart and very self-assured yet humble at the same time. But he has strong convictions about things, which is rare at that age.�
Mayer wasn�t the only young artist to impress Hancock, who was in for another surprise when he arrived to play acoustic piano on top of a rhythm track he�d already cut for Christina Aguilera�s rendition of Leon Russell�s �A Song For You.� When Aguilera stepped up to the mic, Hancock recalls, �She did about six takes of the song, and each one sounded like a final take. They were fantastic. I was floored. I knew she could sing, but I didn�t know she could sing like that. Wow. She said, �I�m just trying different things,� and I said, �That doesn�t sound like a try, that sounds like a done.� Her intonation was incredible.�
Hancock is understandably enthusiastic about all of the collaborations on the album. He quickly put together a session with Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice and his vocal foil, Lisa Hannigan, when Rice came to L.A. in May, 2004 for a pair of dates at the Troubadour. In between gigs, they managed to cut a devastatingly melancholy take on Billie Holiday�s �Don�t Explain.� (Rice got on so well with Hancock that he invited him to sit in at the Troubadour the night after the recording.) Hancock and Trey Anastasio, the former Phish guitarist, completely improvised a four-movement instrumental suite. He and Paul Simon recast Simon�s tender �I Do It For You Love,� from Still Crazy After All These Years, in a sensual, understated arrangement for piano, guitar and gentle percussion, lending it an almost bossa nova feel. It turned out, Hancock says, to be �one of the most jazz-like arrangements on the record.�
An updating of U2�s �When Love Comes To Town,� originally recorded as a duet between Bono and B.B. King, features blues guitarist Jonny Lang, young R&B powerhouse Joss Stone and Hancock himself in an arrangement that is �a bit of country, a bit of rock, then I come in and pretty much play a jazz solo on top of it.� Raul Midón, the soulful, young New York City singer-songwriter who has drawn more than a few Stevie Wonder comparisons, fronts a version of �I Just Called To Say I Love You� that Hancock and producer-keyboardist Greg Phillinganes originally created for Wonder�s appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors. Wonder plays harmonica on the track, which Hancock and Phillanganes cut in L.A.
And, as the hip swiveling rhythms of Carlos Santana/Angelique Kidjo track �Safiatou� unequivocally prove, that session was nothing less than sizzling: �When Carlos got there, he grabbed the ball and made everything happen. He gave me 200 percent, 500 percent, and then Angelique, this ball of fire, came in and completely delivered. It was just wonderful being in that environment.�
It�s a testimony to the far-reaching effects of Hancock�s talents that he has been named the first official Artist in Residence at the 2005 Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee this summer. His legacy in jazz would be enough. He has been an extraordinary accomplished solo recording artist, a member of Miles Davis�s most revered quintet, part of V.S.O.P., and a score composer for such prestigious films as Blow Up and 'Round Midnight, for which he won an Academy Award®.
But he has also been a major influence on hip-hop�s best deejays, thanks to his groundbreaking collaboration with Grandmaster D.S.T. on the 1983 platinum-selling Future Shock disc, which featured the GRAMMY®-winning �Rockit.� (The hugely popular single also inspired an MTV Video Award-winning clip by directors Kevin Godley and Lol Cr�me.) Sample-hungry deejays and mixers have relentlessly scoured his sixties-era solo albums for inspiration: Hancock�s �Cantaloupe Island� was the basis for US3�s 1993 hit �Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),� and Hancock�s score for Blow Up served as the foundation for Deee-Lite�s worldwide hit �Groove Is in the Heart.� Hancock�s own forays into funk, as well as his remarkable legacy in acoustic and electric jazz, have now attracted fans crossing over from the jam-band world.
It�s not surprising, then, that when Hancock put together a wish list for potential collaborators, all his wishes would come true. Hancock and friends have found musical connections and personal bonds, created new songs and revitalized familiar ones. Most of all, they considered the possibilities.