A beginner’s guide to Herbie Hancock

We chart the jazz legend’s crossover career through five key recordings ahead of Abu Dhabi Festival gig

The breakthrough bop
‘Watermelon Man’(1962)

After growing up a piano prodigy in Chicago – he performed Mozart's ‘Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537 (Coronation)’ with an orchestra aged just 11 – Hancock fell for jazz and found a voice with his first LP Takin’ Off. Released on the iconic and influential Blue Note label in 1962, the lead tune ‘Watermelon Man’, a stripped back bluesy bop, has gone to become a jazz standard covered by dozens of artists across the world.

The golden years with Miles
‘The Sorcerer’ (1967)

Regardless of his other staggering achievements in jazz, R&B and pop, Herbie Hancock will never outlive the monumental contribution he made to music as the pianist in Miles Davis’ band from 1963-1968. A deeply intuitive line-up of fresh young players Davis recruited to stimulate his own flagging creativity, the ‘Second Great Miles Davis Quintet’  of '65-'68 has gone to be regarded as one of the very best in jazz, pushing the boundaries of harmony, ditching chords progressions and pioneering what came to be known as post bop. While he contributed far fewer compositions to the band’s songbook than saxophonist Wayne Shorter, this Hancock composition remains one of the quintet’s quintessential moments.

The funky stuff
‘Chameleon (single edit)’ (1973)

After embracing electronic keyboards, synchs, electronic looping and gizmos over a series of sprawling but undervalued solo albums in the late ’60s and ’70s, Herbie turned on his love of James Brown and Sly Stone to form the Headhunters, a consciously dance-floor friendly instrumental funk line-up that maintained much of the brains of Hancock’s best jazzier recordings while strutting into the charts. This radio edit of the 16-minute ‘Chameleon’ remains the outfit’s best known work.

The jazz-hip-hop crossover thing
‘Rockit’ (1983)

After a decade spent pedalling increasingly commercial but critically unwelcomed funk and R&B LPs – while simultaneously keeping credible acoustic jazz alive in the VSOP supergroup alongside former Davis bandmates Shorter, Ron Cater and Tony Williams – Hancock found himself back in the Billboard charts with this breakout crossover hit. Credited with introducing scratching to the mainstream radio for the first time, it was embraced by the B-boy culture and is today regarded as a jazz-cross-hip-hop forbearer. Not that it’s dated all that well.

The jazz treasure years
‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy feat. Joni Mitchell’ (2007)

Now aged 73, Herbie Hancock can realistically claim to be the best known jazz musician in the world, and is one of a handful of legends remaining from the romanticised golden ages of the genre. His recent work has rightly been greeted with the ecstatic embrace of THE elder statesman of jazz – as evidenced when his 2007 Joni Mitchell tribute LP River, featuring guest vocalists from Norah Jones to Tina Turner, and Mitchell herself on this cut, which became the second jazz release to win the Best Album Grammy ever. Other recent collaborative works have seen Hancock play alongside Sting, Pink, Chaka Khan, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Toumani Diabaté, and even help out on a Kanye West tune. A truly restless spirit.

Herbie Hancock performs at the Abu Dhabi Festival on March 21 at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi.Doors open 6.30pm, concert starts 8pm. Find out more www.abudhabifestival.ae

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