Fusion and freedom: the unfinished adventures of Herbie Hancock

At the core of jazz is improvisation, or put another way, musical freedom. Through this is the philosophy that has always underpinned the style, traditions have nevertheless formed. Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool, fusion—all generated characteristics, which in turn, created exclusivity. Few artists managed to break free of these shackles. Herbie Hancock was one of them.

Sprouting from classical roots isn’t unheard of in jazz, yet few have sewn a unique thread through several colours of jazz like Herbie Hancock. At 80, the adventures are far from over for this totemic figure in 20th and 21st-century music.Herbie Hancock at 80

Herbie Hancock is a true icon of jazz. Though he has inspired generations throughout a six-decade career, he continues to explore new musical territories.

A student of the classics

The classical repertoire is vast, especially for piano. The giants of each period—from Bach in the Baroque, through Hadyn, Mozart and Beethoven in the Classical, through to Liszt, Chopin and Brahms in the Romantic—were keyboardists in one form or another. Each wrote copious virtuosic music for their specialist instrument.

Rising to the status of a concert pianist is no small feat. Such is the competition, many pianists can spend a lifetime practising and never have access to the stage. But Herbie Hancock did.

At age 11.

It was only after this remarkable pre-teen highlight of playing a Mozart Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that Hancock discovered jazz. He took inspiration from fluid and crisp lines of Oscar Peterson and the painterly chords of Bill Evans. He eventually took lessons from fellow Chicagoan Chris Anderson and imbibed his richly textured approach to harmonies.

Take off

In the early ’60s, Hancock’s ability earned him regular session work and eventually a record deal from iconic jazz label, Blue Note. Hancock released his first solo record, Takin’ Off. Featuring cuts like Watermelon Man, his debut album could not have been more auspiciously titled.

Watermelon Man was a singular statement of intent from the young pianist and composer. Repetitive riffage from the bass, hooky-as-hell melodies from the blazing horn section with Hancock behind the driver’s wheel, injecting this danceable epic with rhythms that propelled the record—and the sound of jazz—into the future.

Takin’ Off elevated Hancock to national recognition and he didn’t escape the attention of the preeminent voice in jazz at the time, Miles Davis. Herbie Hancock would join the second incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet, contributing to a string of classic albums like E.S.P, Miles Smiles, Nefertiti and more. The spirit of freedom that fuelled this straight-ahead jazz elevated Hancock’s status as a soloist and an ensemble member.

After the breakup of this group, Hancock was to team up with Davis another time, in 1969. As it transpired, it was a record that was pivotal for both men’s careers as they embarked on a new direction in jazz. In a Silent Way, produced by Teo Macero, brought together a new generation of luminaries, including guitarist John McLaughlin and the triple keyboard threat of Joe Zawinul, Herbie himself and long-time collaborator, Chick Corea. Like Bob Dylan a few years earlier, jazz went ‘electric’.


Perhaps it was his double-major in music and electrical engineering that awakened Herbie Hancock to the potential of electronic music. In any case, this last sojourn with Miles Davis propelled the still-young star into the age of fusion and with it, unprecedented commercial success.

In 1973, Hancock formed The Headhunters, with Bennie Maupin on reeds, Harvey Mason on drums, Paul Summers on bass and Bill Summers on percussion. This slimmed-down, funk friendly lineup was of course completed by Hancock, but instead of the piano, he opted for electric piano and synthesizers.

The early ’70s was a watershed moment in the development of music technology. Synthesizers had been around for a while, but it was mainly confined to the laboratory and a few experimental composers. In quick succession, Moog released the Minimoog—the first synthesizer to feature an attached keyboard—followed by the ARP Odyssey. It was the latter that piqued Hancock’s interest and on it, he created one the most memorable bass lines in history, the central pillar of Chameleon.

With this two-chord masterpiece, which lit up dancefloors the world over, Hancock reached another milestone. Headhunters was the first jazz album to go platinum, with over a million sales in U.S. and the best ever selling jazz record at the time. It was just 10 years after his debut—within that decade, Herbie Hancock had not only transformed himself, he redrew the boundaries of jazz.

Success of this magnitude can either empower an artist or make them retreat into conservatism. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? On the contrary, the instincts that catalysed Hancock’s metamorphosis from prodigy to pioneer have continued to guide his artistic choices. The Bill Laswell-producer Rockit, for example, is even more daring synth-laden adventure, won him a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. He won an Oscar for his score for the film ‘Round Midnight, in which he also featured as an actor. This is a man who’s made a career on gambling and winning.

As evidenced by his recent tour, he’s in no mood to slow down. And why would he? Approaching six decades in the limelight, Herbie Hancock has amassed a catalogue as sizeable as the classical composers that fuelled his childhood ambition. If the pattern of his career is anything to go by, the evolution of Herbie Hancock is set to continue.