This American pianist is one of the most versatile musicians in the history of jazz. He doesn't hesitate to meld into his compositions elements of soul, rock and hip-hop, and make the whole harmonious. A precocious talent, he first made a name for himself playing with the most celebrated jazzmen, in particular with the Miles Davis Quintet. He then embarked on a prolific solo career. Also a gifted composer, he has written classics such as Watermelon Man, Maiden Voyage and Chameleon.
Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born in Chicago on April 12, 1940. At the age of 7, he began taking piano lessons, and at 11 he made his professional debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing pieces by Bach and Mozart.
At 20 Hancock was discovered by trumpeter player Donald Byrd, who hired him to play with his orchestra. Three years later, in 1963, Hancock released Takin' Off, his debut album featuring the song Watermelon Man, his first commercial success.
Also in 1963, Hancock was invited to join the new Miles Davis Quintet featuring saxophonist Wayne Shorter, double bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. The group was widely hailed as the best jazz ensemble of the 1960s.
On top of his engagement with Davis, which spanned a period of five years, Hancock continued to record solo on the Blue Note label. The albums Empyrean Island (1964), Maiden Voyage (1965) and Speak Like a Child (1968) showcased his great talent as a composer.
The emergence of fusion
The period that followed saw the pianist shift his focus to electric and electronic instruments. His compositions became more complex, blending jazz, funk, soul and R&B. This trend culminated with the 1973 album Headhunters, featuring the funky song Chameleon, reminiscent of Sly Stone.
In spite of the success of this electric adventure, Hancock did not turn his back on acoustic jazz. In 1976, producer Georges Wein asked him to take part in the Newport Jazz Festival, and the pianist conceived the idea for an acoustic project.
With double bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter-all former members of the second Miles Davis Quintet during the 60s-Hancock opted to present a retrospective of his 15-year career.
The reunion of these fabulous instrumentalists caused quite a stir in jazz circles, with the show dubbed the Very Special Onetime Performance (VSOP).
In the early 1980s, Herbie Hancock released Quartet, an acoustic album perfectly suited to the emerging taste for neo-traditional jazz.
VSOP, part deux
In 1983, Herbie Hancock made his first visit to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. To mark the occasion, the musician staged an encore presentation of the VSOP show given at Newport a few years earlier. This time, however, Brandford Marsalis was brought in to replace Wayne Shorter and trumpet player Wynton Marsalis was welcomed aboard-the younger Marsalis had already played with Hancock on Quartet.
Also in 1983, Hancock released Future Shock, an experimental album with an electronic flavour. The album featured the popular single Rockit, and the video for the song was widely broadcast on MTV. Hancock is one of the rare jazz pianists to incorporate synthesizers and scratch. On the 1982 album Lite Me Up he used a vocoder to achieve unusual vocal effects.
Hancock returned to the Festival in 1986, flanked by an acoustic group of hand-picked musicians, including Brandford Marsalis, who'd just returned from a tour with Sting, and a rhythm section headed by celebrated double bassist Ron Carter and Al Foster, the drummer with the Miles Davis band.
In the same year, Hancock won an Oscar for his soundtrack from the Bertrand Tavernier film 'Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon.
Hip, hop, Hancock
In 1993, Hancock released Dis Is Da Drum, an album on the Mercury label that saw him flirt with hip-hop. In the same year, he returned to the Festival as part of an acoustic trio.
In 1997, the musical chameleon presented the show New Standards. Backing him up was a star-studded lineup featuring Michael Brecker on tenor sax, John Scofield on guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Don Alias on percussion and Dave Holland on bass.
That evening, Hancock and his musical peers put their personal spin on pop music classics by the likes of The Beatles, Kurt Cobain and Prince.
The 1997 album 1 + 1, a rare collection of piano-sax duos, reunited Herbie Hancock - the keyboardist-fearless explorer of acoustic jazz, R&B and electronic jazz-funk - with Wayne Shorter, the tenor sax master credited with pushing back the harmonic, melodic and formal boundaries of jazz. The two musicians - each a winner of the Miles Davis Award - were once again featured together at the 2000 edition of the Festival.
Two years later, Hancock returned to Montreal to pay tribute to two jazz giants, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, each of whom would have celebrated his 75th birthday. To mark the occasion, Hancock teamed up with sax player Michael Brecker and trumpet player Roy Hargrove to explore the Davis and Coltrane repertoires from the 1950s and 1960s.
In 2003, drummer Jack DeJohnette invited Hancock to join him for an evening performance as part of the Invitation series. The concert also featured Dave Holland on bass. The prolific Hancock also gave a second concert as part of a quartet with the great vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
In 2007, Hancock released River: The Joni Letters, an album revisiting the compositions of Canadian Joni Mitchell.
Three years later, the musician dropped by the Festival to present material from his The Imagine Project album.