Hancock jazzily explores pop 'Possibilities'

Music Notes

September 01, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

Herbie Hancock, forever the chameleonic musician, is still restless.

And that's a good thing. As he talks about the art of making music and his just-released album, Possibilities, he's as analytical as a professor -- breaking down some of his ideas literally note for note. A palpable enthusiasm bubbles through all the talk of chord changes and melody and rhythm embellishments. Calling from his Los Angeles office, Hancock puts me on hold from time to time to give instructions to his assistant. But he always returns exactly to where he left off, never missing a beat.

About Possibilities, a 10-cut collaborative pop outing with an array of artists, including Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, Santana and others, the Chi-Town native says, "In each case, I had a chance to talk with the artist beforehand about issues other than music. I'm glad I did that because I didn't want the album to grow out of notes and chords but feeling and humanity."

The album will be sold in traditional retail outlets, as well as at Starbucks locations. As with the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles' posthumous duets set, Starbucks will participate in distributing and marketing Possibilities. The easy, organic sound of the record wouldn't feel out of place floating from the speakers in the coffeehouse chain's outlets.

"I was glad to form a relationship with Starbucks because everybody loves Starbucks," Hancock says.

The bulk of the new album was recorded live in the studio. When schedules wouldn't allow some artists to work intimately with Hancock and his band, the vocals were overdubbed. But nothing about the album ever feels patched together. Although Possibilities is essentially a pop record, Hancock's jazziness -- bold harmonic structures, daring shifts in tempo -- shines through. The openness of the arrangements and the subtle complexities of Hancock's work on the piano push the artists.

The finest example of this is Aguilera's vocal performance on "A Song for You," the oft-recorded Leon Russell chestnut. Now, it's no secret that the former teen pop star can sing her usually barely clothed behind off. But you have probably never heard her so refined as she belts over Hancock's moody, blues-in-the-night arrangement.

"My feeling is that, in the studio, she felt freer to explore more territory than she has before," says Hancock, 65. "I knew she could sing, but I didn't know she could sing like that. Every take she did sounded like she nailed it. She's very much a professional; she was a sweetheart."

Another youngblood who stretched out with the legendary musician is John Mayer. On "Stitched Up," a swaggering number with a hip funk bounce, the sensitive pop rocker sounds assured and more soulful than I've ever heard him.

"I didn't know that John was an amazing guitar player," Hancock says. "He's a very brilliant guy."

The pianist even manages to pull the best out of fellow veterans. Paul Simon shows up to remake his 1975 gem "I Do It For Your Love." On Possibilities, the ballad has more of a shifting rhythm than the original. And Simon's vocal performance is more aching, more vulnerable. It's a quietly beautiful highlight.

"The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this record was a recognition of different cultures," Hancock says.

The multiculturalism of his collaborators is interesting to note: Angelique Kidjo is from Benin; Raul Midon is of black and Argentinian descent. Santana, Hancock's longtime buddy, was born in Mexico, Annie Lennox in Scotland. Sting and Joss Stone are from England. The artists sing over arrangements shaded with the blues, jazz and country funk. Latin and African rhythms also enliven the set.

Possibilities, which lags toward the end, certainly isn't in the league with more pop-friendly Hancock classics such as 1969's Fat Albert Rotunda or 1973's seminal Head Hunters. The Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan rendering of "Don't Explain" is overly affected and melodramatic. And not even Midon's gorgeous vocals can save the forced, slowed-down take of "I Just Called to Say I Love You," perhaps one of Stevie Wonder's most annoying songs.

"It was a great and interesting challenge to collaborate with so many varied artists of different ages," Hancock says. "I'd been thinking about doing something like this for the past four or five years."

He chuckles and adds, "I didn't want to wait to get too old."

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