The Imagine Project cover art

Herbie Hancock album The Imagine Project

This is Carol Handley and you are listening to Musicians on Mic, an opportunity to share some conversations that I have with various artists and today it is with keyboardist, Herbie Hancock. In 2005, Herbie and Allen Mintz produced a project called Possibilities. It was the first of three Cds in a row that included almost exclusively vocals, with each track featuring different vocalists. Possibilities featured Christina Aguilara, Sting, and Annie Lennox among others. Possibilities was followed by the hugely successful album River, the Joni Letters. The ten song album was produced by bassists and ex-husband of Joni Mitchell, Larry Klein. Herbie along with saxophonist, Wayne Shorter were also old friends and musical colleagues of Joni Mitchell’s. In fact, they appeared on her 1979 album Mingus. The project won Herbie Hancock, Album of the Year, from the Grammy’s and it included vocalists Nora Jones, Tina Turner, and Joni Mitchell.

When I caught up with Herbie Hancock it was 2010. A month after the release of The Imagine Project, and immediately after he came off the road from a six week European tour. He was gearing up for a U.S. leg that would include a stop over at the David Letterman Show and culminate in a 70h birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. The Imagine Project, in my home listening environment had not come out of rotation at all. I just hit repeat. Dozens of artists, seven continents, two years in the making.  A production feat and a beautiful album. This is the conversation that I had with Herbie Hancock about the songs, the artists, and the inspiration for The Imagine Project.

Your working with Larry Klein again?

Herbie Hancock: Yes, working with Larry Klein. He was the perfect guy for this record too. He’s worked with a lot of singers, he knows lyrics, and I did want to work with singers. I also very much respect Larry for his humanity, his feeling, and his ideas about the human spirit. We see eye to eye on so many things and I was glad that he not only agree to but, he was excited about being involved with this project. He did a lot of research in helping me make decisions about which songs to use, which singers to ask, as of the musical environments we might employ. He’s a great talent.

Carol: When you say you and Larry started working on this a couple of years ago, it clearly has this global theme. How did all of that get started, how did it come together?

Herbie Hancock: I wanted to do a record that addresses some issue of today. I mean there is a lot going on today in the world

Carol: No kidding.

Herbie Hancock: In American and I wanted to address something. I was thinking the economy was, it’s about the economy stupid.

Carol: Yes, yes.

Herbie Hancock: Anyway, I started thinking about the financial crisis and that for the first time, maybe for the average American, the idea of globalization, hit them in the face because the whole idea of some of the banks being to large to let them fail. The fact that we had this meltdown economically here we saw the results reflected in the economies of many of the countries in the world. Globalization is the issue here. The banks are not just national anymore. Many of the business are not just national anymore, they’re international. We have to take a whole different look at the twenty-first century I believe. It’s going to be a global sensory, like it or not. I’d rather like it than, not but, in order to like it we have to take the responsibility for designing and creating the kind of globalized world that we want to live in.

Carol: Amen.

Herbie Hancock: The only way to do that is to rather than focusing all of our thoughts on closing borders, putting up wall, and keeping people out, we should think about being more open and examining cultures outside ourselves. Try to figure out how we can make this process happen in a way that will be meaningful. Will be forward thinking, will be creative, and lead to where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We need to open ourselves up to other cultures. Respect other cultures. Learn about other cultures and then collaborate with them, dialogue with them. I am convinced that we’ll come up with solutions that can not be created by any one of those cultures by themselves. Solutions that are needed, that are necessary for the positive evolution of the planet and the progress of the human spirit toward creating and designing the kind of future globalized world that we all want to live in and that we want our children and our children’s children to live in. I tried to address that with this record.

My attorney came up with the idea of using Image as a kind of cornerstone and a springboard for making a record about peace. So putting those ideas together, we have peace through global collaboration and that is what the record it about.

Carol: I can see how it can help to hone in which song selection.

Herbie Hancock: It was not an easy thing to put together. Both Larry Klein and I agreed that it’s the hardest record either one of us ever made before.

Carol: Yes, I can see it. Walking through the lighter notes and seeing how many players, from how many places, the undertaking for this, plus to just arranging.

Herbie Hancock: Right because every piece has a completely different environment. A completely different engine. Each piece is like doing a whole record.

Carol: Yes.

Herbie Hancock: You have to start completely from scratch on each piece but, that is what we set out to do.

Carol: I can see why it took a couple of years to get it done.

Herbie Hancock: Right. Exactly, because of the artists that are involved, they have their on careers, they’re making their own records, they have their tours that they’re doing, it’s just logistics putting all of that together. Plus we traveled to seven different countries recording the album. In some cases, getting translation of of lyrics, for example, “The Times, They Are A’ Changin” we’ve got some lyrics in English and then there are some Irish translation. Also the piece we did in India, “The Song Goes On” we’ve got English and we’ve got Hindi, which Larry Klein and I saw as and English poem, well a poem in English. Well Rooker is German. So he wrote it in German. We started with the translation already and then we took that English translation and had someone in India translate it into Hindi.

Carol: I bet you have a team don’t you?

Herbie Hancock: Yes, we have to put together a team because the record is on Hancock Records.  So we had to put a team together to make up the elements that would function as a label.

Carol: Then you added the guitar of and all of the later? Or was that part of the…

Herbie Hancock: We added the guitar later.

Carol: Well, that’s like the serious jazz tune on the album. With you guys on that.

Herbie Hancock: Well, the title of the song is “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Well the change does come. Yes, we kind of stretch out there on the end of that there piece.

Carol: Yes, it’s beautiful.

Herbie Hancock: Thank you. Thank you very much

Carol: Dave Matthews, that was a good choice I think.

Herbie Hancock: Oh yes, yes. I’ll tell you and interesting story that you wouldn’t know about. We actually recorded Dave with a completely different piece first. We did that a year ago. Actually we recorded in San Francisco because he had to perform the next day in the Bay area. He had this window, so Marcus Miller and I flew up to San Francisco and worked with Carter Bufford, who was Dave’s drum and some other musicians there.

Dave had an idea, kind of a melodic fragment, so we just continued to work on that. I’ve got shots I took with my camera of Dave when we were listening to the playback of just the track, where he just made up some words just to fill in the space. He’s listening to the playback and sitting on the floor in the corner composing lyrics for it. Anyway, when we got the thing all together he recorded it again and it was a completely new piece that was composed, right there. About a year later, it turns out the we discover, I don’t know when this happened or how but, he began to hate that piece. He wanted to do something else, not that. In the final analysis, he put together the initial elements of essentially another John Lennon tune, ” Tomorrow Never Knows”. I overdubbed some keyboard work and prepared piano to put that piece together. I was actually delighted with the result because we had nothing else on the record that was quite like that.

Carol: The serious blues jam that is “Space Captain”.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, yes. Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. They’re great people. We had a great, warm people. The are complete jazz nuts. They both are jazz freaks. Really. That’s all the memorabilia that they have in their house, is jazz stuff, John Coltrane things, Miles Davis things, and so forth.

Carol: They’ve played with quite few jazz people actually along the way.

Herbie Hancock: You know he’s got that jazz gene in him. It was really a ball to exchange, have those kind of instrumental exchanges with him on “Space Captain”. We picked that piece, it’s kind of a feel good piece. It’s also about bringing people together. It fit the spirit of the album. Susan Tedeschi, I mean got an amazing kind of blues/rock voice and it’s really powerful. She can belt it out.

We flew down to their place and his studio in Jacksonville, FL to do that.

Carol: When I heard John Legend on “Don’t Give Up”, I thought it was Peter Gabriel. I mean the first few notes, it was like he sounded just like Peter Gabriel there.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, you know other people have said the same thing.

Carol: Yes, it’s wild but, what an inspired pair those two are for that great song (John Legend and Pink).

Herbie Hancock: It’s really worked out. I was so pleased with what they both did. Pink sounds beautiful on that and so does John Legend.

Both of them together makes it such a powerful rendering of fantastic composition.

Carol: It’s a haunting song.

Herbie Hancock: Oh yes, yes.

Carol: Kate Bush Has such an unusual voice that I think a lot of people didn’t get into it as much as I had hope that they will with this version because it’s really great.

Herbie Hancock: Thank you. I was very pleased with it.

Carol: I was like sweet. How are we going to edit that one. You know us radio people.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, it’s kind of long, huh?

Carol: Well, yes but for a cd project it’s great. Just to be able to sit back and let the whole piece stretch out, it’s really wonderful.

Herbie Hancock: Oh, thank you.

Carol: So what’s on your plate now? Can you sort it out?

Herbie Hancock: Because the Imagine Project album has only been out a month we’re going to spend the month of August touring the United States, ending in L.A., at the Hollywood Bowl.

Carol: For your birthday!

Herbie Hancock: Yes, it’ll be a birthday celebration. Actually my birthday was April twelfth. So I’m already seventy.

Carol: I’m dumb. I’ve never realized that. That is also my birthday.

Herbie Hancock: Really?

Carol: Yes.

Herbie Hancock: Well Happy Birthday!

Carol: Happy Belated Birthday to you as well!

Herbie Hancock: Wow! That’s great!

Carol: Fellow Aries. I should have known.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, fellow Aries, that’s it.

Carol: Excellent.

Herbie Hancock: We proud of our sign. Are we?

Carol: Yes we are!

Herbie Hancock: No kidding, April twelfth?

Carol: Yes, yes and by the way David Letterman’s.

Herbie Hancock: Right, right David Letter. I knew that. Actually, we’re going to be on David Letterman’s show.

Carol: Well, oh. You can’t really wish him a Happy Birthday now. It doesn’t really work does it? Out of curiosity how do you keep up with music trends and whose making it? I mean, because we’re all getting our music in so many different ways these days. It’s crazy.

Herbie Hancock: Usually people suggest things to me and then I look for them on iTunes. You know, some times they suggest things that are on YouTube, you know videos. That’s how I found out about Juane’s, “La Tierra”.

Carol: YouTube?

Herbie Hancock: Yes, YouTube.

Carol: That’s great! That’s a really cool place to go follow links.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, yes.

Carol: You’re a electronics dude.

Herbie Hancock: Oh yes. I was just thinking the other day, how valuable Google is. For example, we used to go to a physical library.

Carol: Yes.

Herbie Hancock: To find one bit of information.

Carol: If we were lucky. If it were there.

Herbie Hancock: If it were there. Yes. We’d have to search for it ourselves. That’s the amazing thing about this time. You can find out whatever we want to find out pretty much. All of those things are very valuable tools. There are caviats. There are some danger. It’s easier to connect yourself with people outside of your realm. It’s also easy to isolate yourself from everybody such things as, when I see you young people sitting across from each other and not talking to each other but, texting each other. How weird is that? You, know and there’s less conversation happening in front of the tv, instead in front of each other.

Carol: I just want to say this as it pertains to families. Humanity first begins at home.

Herbie Hancock: Especially, now we need to be developing our humanity and a connection with our species. This is the twenty-first century we should be much further ahead in those areas. Technology is much more advance than the humanity that is needed to control it. We have to work that out for us. I mean, this is why I did this record, The Imagine Project. It’s to answer some of the things that we need to be thinking about and focusing on. It’s our humanity, this needs to be the century of humanity and the development of humanity. Effort, compassion, and responsibility but also wisdom. That’s one thing that you don’t get from the internet.

Carol: No.

Herbie Hancock: You know, it’s easy to like type something into a text email. You can type certain things but the nuisances you don’t get that from reading the words but, if you actually see someone saying something it makes a world of difference.

Carol: That’s a good point because that happens to me all the time.

Herbie Hancock: There can be a lot of confusion when the face isn’t there behind the written words.

Carol: It’s the emotional intent there.

Herbie Hancock: It’s funny, so our substitute is using those emoticons.

Carol: Yes.

Herbie Hancock: I love that. It’s really creative.

Carol: Yes, it’s sort of like scatting.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, that’s cool.

Carol: Wow! Mr. Hancock, it’s been very nice chatting with you.

Herbie Hancock: Thank you very much. It’s was fun.

Carol: You are very welcome. It was fun and I’ll think of you next April twelfth when I’m celebrating my birthday.

Herbie Hancock: Yes, yes right. I’ll think of you too.

Carol: Thank you.

Herbie Hancock: Enjoy.

Carol: Herbie Hancock In Conversation talking about his 2010 Imagine Project. To find out more go to