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Herbie Hancock in the Studio. Image: Ethan Hein
Herbie Hancock in the studio. Image: Ethan Hein

Herbie Hancock:
A life in five songs

The musical giant ushers in a new era of jazz

Justin Tam

Not many musicians can claim a career that spans so many genres and generations. Herbie Hancock was a pianist in the legendary Miles Davis Quintet, during which he recorded dozens of sessions under the Blue Note label. It was upon leaving the band that he found his own voice, as leader of his own jazz sextet, a composer for film and television and, fortuitously, discovered the instrument that would be his calling card—the Fender Rhodes.

These are the moments you might remember:

Maiden Voyage started out as a cologne ad

Hancock’s fourth and fifth studio albums, Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage were both written in the sixties, and cemented his reputation as a jazz giant. Standards like ‘Cantaloupe Island’, ‘Maiden Voyage’ and ‘Dolphin Dance’ live on to this day in the ‘real books’ (bootleg compilations of jazz transcriptions originally scrawled out by hand) that young musicians continue to learn from and will for decades to come.

Listen to Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage', from the 1965 album 'Maiden Voyage', released on Blue Note

He fused jazz and funk with The Headhunters

Herbie fast made the Rhodes his own sound, and it was Head Hunters (1973), his twelfth album, that claimed the era. Before this, Hancock had released three experimental jazz albums—Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant—in an attempt to find a new path for his music to start on.

This record was a sidestep from jazz. As Hancock says on the liner notes to the 1997 reissue: “I began to feel that I had been spending so much time exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff. Now there was this need to take some more of the earth and to feel a little more tethered; a connection to the earth.”

He commands an entire suite of groundbreaking electronic instruments: from the Fender Rhodes to the clavinet, the ARP Odyssey synth, and the ARP Soloist. But many of the obscure quirks of the album’s sound come from Bill Summers, his percussionist, who was armed with even more: the agogô, balafon, beer bottle, cabasa, congas, gankogui, hindewhu, log drum, shekere, surdo, as well as the classic tambourine.

Watch Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters performing 'Chameleon', 1974

He acted (and performed, and scored) in a film about jazz

Round Midnight, by the French director Bertrand Tavernier, is about the tragic jazz scene of Paris in the ‘50s, and partly based on the life of tenor sax player Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell. Musicians Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock all made cameos as performers on-screen, and Hancock also took the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score.

Watch Herbie Hancock and Dexter Gordon perform 'Body and Soul' in the film 'Round Midnight', 1986

He performed a tribute album to his friend, Joni Mitchell

Hancock and Wayne Shorter are both longtime friends of the singer Joni Mitchell, and performed on the recording of her 1979 album Mingus. He celebrated this in a two-part tribute album to Mitchell, covering jazz standards ('Nefertiti'), but also his own takes on her tunes—'River', 'Both Sides, Now' and 'A Case of You'. It won Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album at the 2008 Grammys, where he overtook Kanye West, Foo Fighters and Amy Winehouse.

The album features the voice of not only Mitchell herself, but Leonard Cohen ('The Jungle Line'), Tina Turner ('Edith and the Kingpin'), Norah Jones ('Court and Spark'), and Corinne Bailey Rae ('River').

Watch Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell perform 'River' for Live At Yahoo!, 2008

He and Flying Lotus took us on a ‘Descent Into Madness’

In 2014, the producer (and John Coltrane’s great-nephew), Flying Lotus, revealed Hancock would be a surprise featured guest on his new album You’re Dead. Hancock has always played between the border of hip-hop, R&B and jazz; his soundtrack for Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Fat Albert captures the early murmurs of that fusion. His deft keywork with FlyLo stretches the limits of what we call ‘jazz’. On ‘Tesla’ and ‘Descent Into Madness’ which also features bassist Thundercat, Hancock’s keyboards create flourishes and harmonic movement behind FlyLo’s playful drum programming that signal back to his fusion era of the ‘80s.

An unreleased and unnamed forthcoming album from Herbie Hancock features other cross-genre virtuosos from parallel worlds, including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Kendrick Lamar.


Watch a student jazz masterclass with Herbie Hancock. From the Sydney Opera House's Children, Families & Creative Learning team in partnership with the NSW Arts Unit, Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz and UNESCO. 

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