|Herbie Hancock, et. al. - Possibilities|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Stephen K. Peeples|
|Tuesday, 30 August 2005|
It worked for Carlos and Ray, and maybe it’ll work for Herbie Hancock, the Grammy- and Oscar-winning jazz-funk-rock pianist who’s a giant among his peers and a broad spectrum of serious music fans, but still not quite a household name on a par with a pop star.
Hancock’s latest album, Possibilities, could change that. Ever the collaborator, he called in a host of ringer singers and players – including household names like Sting, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Carlos Santana, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Trey Anastasio, plus upstarts Jonny Lang and Joss Stone, Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, Raul Midón, and Angélique Kidjo – to join him on a smorgasbord of tracks ready for a variety of radio formats.
In September 2005, Possibilities debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart and #22 on the top 200 pop albums list, instantly becoming Hancock’s fastest-selling album ever. A Starbucks tie-in and a mainstream media blitz didn’t hurt. He plugged the album, appearing on “Ellen” with Christina Aguilera, his guest vocalist here on Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” And in early December, Hancock was scheduled to be on “Good Morning America” with Sting, throwing down their percussive version of the latter’s “Sister Moon.”
Hancock is a rare musician whose talents are so prodigious no single genre can contain them. He seems to get along fine in whatever musical universe he chooses to orbit. Or be the center of. He is like the common quadrant in a Venn diagram of jazz, rock, pop and world music.
Hancock has also boldly challenged conventional perceptions of what’s art and what’s commerce for almost half a century. The prodigal son came out of Chicago playing classical and jazz, hooked up with Donald Byrd in New York in 1961, and cut his first solo album for Blue Note the same year (Takin’ Off, featuring “Watermelon Man”).
Hancock joined the Miles Davis quintet in 1963 (with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) and pioneered electric (Fender Rhodes) piano in jazz during his five years with Davis. Hancock scored Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” pioneered electronics and funk (clavinet) in jazz and rock, and was a member of the straight-ahead VSOP jazz supergroup in the ’70s.
In the ’80s, Hancock won his first Grammy, for the pumped-up space-age rock/funk/hip-hop workout titled “Rock-it”; its revolutionary video was one of MTV’s first power-rotation monster hits. Hancock was the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival's first “Artist in Residence” award, performing with many of the festival’s other artists and bands.
Along the way, Hancock’s picked up eight more Grammys, an Oscar (for his “Round Midnight” score) and awards from just about every entertainment entity from Downbeat Magazine to Billboard to MTV.
Most recently, he’s been fronting the all-star Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters ’05, also including John Mayer (guitar), Marcus Miller (bass), Roy Hargrove (trumpet), Kenny Garrett (saxophone), Munyungo Jackson (percussion), Lionel Loueke (guitar) and Terri Lynn Carrington (drums).
And that barely scratches the surface of Hancock’s story.
Creatively restless, seemingly always up for a musical adventure, Hancock has adroitly bounded back and forth between art and commerce most, if not all, his career. The best popular music balances the two somehow.
On Possibilities, you get both art and commerce, but not always in balance.
The first two tracks – featuring Hancock backing Mayer and jamming with Santana – skew way toward commerce.
Combining Mayer’s neo-hippie folk with a little funk from Hancock and rhythm kings Willie Weeks (bass), Steve Jordan (drums) and Michael Beardon (keyboards), “Stitched Up” (authored by Mayer and Hancock in the studio) is a cute but disposable tale about a wild woman who’s got poor Johnny stitched up and locked down in love. Herbie, on acoustic piano as on most of the tracks here, plays a loose, breezy Ramsey Lewis kind of vibe as Mayer works his hippie folk-pop singer/songwriter persona, which sounds a lot like Michael “Popsicle Toes” Franks. (As of this writing, Mayer’s telling the press he’s done with the acoustic crap and wants to be a bluesman, anyway. Oy!)
Santana’s “Sofiatou” with international star Angélique Kidjo on vocals is a snappy Santana track with some ritmos Latinos malos and Carlos’s muy caliente fret-burning. This has worked for me since 1969. But, like, where’s Herbie? At about 3:15, after the vocals are out, he finally comes in on piano to start soloing. He meanders, seemingly disoriented, for almost a minute. Finally, he catches the Latin groove and keeps it interesting right into the tag riff. But it’s still a Santana track.
I’m thinking the album’s off to a shaky start. Hancock’s tasty solo intro to a jazz/soul arrangement of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” offers a glimmer of hope, which dies as soon as he throws it over to Christina Aguilera, who treats this tender ballad with the sensitivity of a stevedore. Not that Russell’s original was that sweet; you had to get past his yowling, akin to a cat’s tail being stepped on, to appreciate the song’s romantic core. Fortunately, enough people did, and made it a massive hit for him.
Part of the original’s charm was Leon’s exaggerated phrasing, but here, Christina outdoes him by turning vocal cartwheels over, under, around and through the melody line, with little dynamic other than loud. You have to give her props for powerful pipes, but she missed a big opportunity do try something different – namely, employ restraint – in a venue like this collection, where her commercial career wouldn’t be at stake if no one liked it. I daresay her core fans wouldn’t be interested in this collection anyway.
Christina was 24 when she recorded this, and it’s just hard to take her seriously as she’s singing, “I’ve been so many places in my life and time….” I’m thinking about how John Lennon wrote “In My Life” at age 25 and it almost seemed too early for him to have that kind of perspective. She’s not even in the same league.
The best part of “A Song for You” follows Aguilera’s vocals-out at about 4:45, when, thank God, Herbie takes over and does a jazzy vamp to the end. As the worm turns, I’m probably in the minority on this one, because Hancock, according to the liner notes, was equally knocked out by each of Aguilera’s six takes, and I’ve seen other reviews raving about her performance on this track. But she just does not have the depth of a bona-fide torch-singing diva like Billie Holliday … or Annie Lennox.
So after three tracks, I’m ready to stick a fork in this one. I’m reaching for the eject button when Hancock’s opening piano phrases to “I Do it For Your Love” fill the cavity between my headphones. Then author Paul Simon comes in, his vocals sounding like a male version of Holliday – melancholy, 3 a.m. phrasing. This is not “Rhymin’ Simon.” He’s using this forum to try an arrangement that’s jazzier and even more evocative and heartbreaking than his original. This track is the first on Possibilities that sounds more to me like art than commerce.
I’m marveling at this turn of events when I get caught up in Hancock’s gorgeous intro to the Paula Cole ballad “Hush Hush Hush,” then grabbed by Annie Lennox’s breathtaking, understated vocal performance as she tries to comfort a friend dying of AIDS, observing he’s a “60-year-old man in 20-year-old skin.” Christina, hear Annie sing, see her soul revealed, and take a lesson.
After putting us through an emotional wringer the last two tracks, Hancock lightens up on Track 6, as he and Sting rework the former’s “Sister Moon.” Session aces Steve Jordan (drums) and John Patitucci (bass) lock into a spare but spirited jazz/funk groove, over which Sting croons (sounds close-miked) in a lower register than we usually hear his voice on record, and with jazzier phrasing than his original from the album Nothing Like the Sun. Herbie shares keyboard duties here with Michael Beardon, and we hear some cool Lionel Loueke guitar running backward on the fade.
Track 7 is an epic take on U2’s “When Love Comes to Town,” clocking in at more than eight-and-a-half minutes as keyboardist/producer Greg Phillinganes’ arrangement goes from funky blues-rock to mellow jazz-rock and then back again. Blues guitar prodigy Jonny Lang’s all of 24 and British blues babe Joss Stone just turned legal this year, but they’ve both been in the game since they were kids and sound older than their years. Stone’s voice could sterilize a bullfrog at 300 yards. Mmm-mmm-mmm. Jonny’s pipes are whiskey-ragged. His slinky slide work and nasty electric soloing segue into a jazzy piano solo section featuring YuKnoWho, who then shoves it back into the funk zone for a final verse on which the singers really bust loose. Where you’d expect the track to fade, Herbie takes over to take it out with some facile fingerwork over a slammin’ disco beat. When the track runs out, you hear some studio chatter and laughter from the band: “Boy, that was something, wasn’t it?” says one. “Makes you want to get up and dance!” says another.
“Don’t Explain” takes us back to the 3 a.m. space. The haunting torch ballad co-written by Billie Holliday is eloquently sung here by Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice and frequent vocal/instrumental collaborator Lisa Hannigan. Their dynamic builds dramatically as the track plays out, with melancholy mood underscored instrumentally by Vyvienne Long’s aching cello solo and Hancock’s pensive piano work. Another unexpected gem largely fashioned in the studio, and hidden eight tracks deep into Possibilities.
For Track 9, Hancock and Phillinganes use piano and synths to create a cinematic soundscape for a dramatic remake of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” It also features an appropriately atmospheric guest harmonica solo by the composer. Relative to Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and his other works of that era, this song was a trifle, lighter than air, yet people around the world responded to its sentiment and could sing its simple melody. So it became a lasting trifle, not just a silly disposable love song. Here, newcomer Raul Midón adds acoustic guitar to the mix and delivers a convincing vocal.
The album’s closer brings together jazz jam master Hancock with rock jam master Trey Anastasio, late of the band Phish. With backing from Jordan, Patitucci, percussionist Cyro Baptista and vocalist Jennifer Hartswick, the keyboardist and guitarist jammed for hours, then edited it down to this laconic four-suite piece they titled “Gelo Na Montanha – First Movement.” You’d like to hear this after a passionate session with your lover. At 3:48, it’s entirely too short; most other tracks on the album are five-minutes-plus. Still, like the opening track, created with Mayer on the fly, “Gelo Na Montanha” most exemplifies the creative possibilities of a collaborative project like this.
Hancock produced Possibilities with Alan Mintz and traveled from coast to coast and to London and Toronto for these sessions so that he could collaborate face to face; there was no phoning it in. I counted 17 studios listed in the credits, with a different set of co-producers, engineers and players on almost every track. Yet one would be hard-pressed to tell by listening to the final stereo mix, which is also free of distracting effects. The voices and instruments are distinct unless otherwise intended, especially when heard through headphones.