Herbie Hancock: Past, present and fusion

Herbie Hancock's music has always been experimental - from his electric funk in the Seventies to a current show featuring a DJ. As he tells Andy Gill, it's never been normal
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The last time I was in the Paradiso club in Amsterdam, the Chemical Brothers were turning the converted church into a modern-day version of hell through sheer sensory overload, their deafening sonic maelstrom accompanied by a barrage of flickering strobe lights and abstract back-projections. Even those not on one drug or another were on the verge of losing their minds.

Tonight the audience is, on average, somewhat older, but the music is almost as disorienting, a swirling torrent of sound that bucks and heaves this way and that, subsiding occasionally into calmer passages before surging off again. At its best, it's the musical equivalent of white-water rafting, with some of the sense of thrilling uncertainty one used to get from experimental jazz. Hardly surprising, really, since it's one of a select few European dates from Herbie Hancock, whose work of the Sixties and Seventies – both solo and alongside Miles Davis – made a big contribution to what was arguably the last great era of ground-breaking jazz experimentation.

In the mid-Sixties, Hancock was a member of the Miles Davis quintet that is now regarded as probably jazz's greatest small group, with whom he recorded such classic albums as Nefertiti, Sorcerer and ESP. When Davis went electric later in the decade with Bitches Brew, Hancock went with him; and when Davis went streetwise and funky with On the Corner, Hancock grabbed the notion and ran with it, eventually securing jazz's first platinum album with 1973's epochal jazz-funk landmark Headhunters. One of the keystone works of fusion music, it featured the track "Chameleon", whose monster funk riff took jazz, for the first time in decades, back into the dance clubs, where it sounded perfectly at home alongside the grooves of James Brown and Sly Stone.

Since then, he's diversified further, into classical, dance and film music, winning an Oscar for his soundtrack to Bertrand Tavernier's jazz love-letter, Round Midnight. But it's for his pioneering fusion work that Hancock is most likely to be remembered. Those were heady days, when jazz was worth arguing about, and discussions about musical direction took on an almost ideological tone. Some players reacted strongly against the new electric funk: the mumbling piano genius Keith Jarrett, for instance, vowed never to play an electronic keyboard again, after a short, unhappy stint with Davis. But others followed Davis and Hancock's lead in briefly taking jazz to a new, mass audience. These days, as with the earlier brouhahas prompted by bebop and free jazz, such disputes seem a little beside the point, and one imagines – or hopes – that the jazz scene has regained its openness of spirit.

"I don't know," says Hancock, "because I'm not part of the jazz scene. It's not like when I was in my twenties, when I lived in New York and went to all the clubs all the time. Now, I'm home with my family; I live in LA and I don't go out that much. If I go to a jazz club, I can't enjoy the music, because people come over all the time, wanting autographs and all that."

He's not fibbing, either: at the stage door after the show, a press of people crowd around Herbie for handshakes and autographs, battered old vinyl copies of Headhunters proffered for his felt-tip blessing. I'm no different, getting him to sign my copy of his 1972 album Sextant, whose innovative use of electronic tones as percussion elements has led to a bemused Hancock being belatedly acknowledged as one of the pioneers of techno.

"Bill [Laswell] told me that a lot of people who were doing this electronica had been influenced by Sextant," he chuckles. "I had no idea. I thought he was going to say 'Rockit', which I could understand, or 'Chameleon', but when he said Sextant, I was really surprised. Nobody was interested in it back then. That record didn't sell at all. I remember on the track 'Rain Dance', we used a thing called a random resonator. It's actually a sample-and-hold device: it goes beep-beep-boop-beep-boop – random pitches, that's all it does. And I made a loop out of part of it. Except that in those days we had to actually physically make a loop out of it, splice the tape together and run it around the room, around staplers and lamps and stuff. You don't have to do that any more."

The degree to which music technology has changed over the intervening three decades can be gauged by Hancock's performance – which features a pair of Titanium G4 Apple PowerBooks perched atop the synths, and DJ Disk on the wheels of steel – and particularly by his latest album, Future 2 Future, on which he's joined by techno types such as Carl Craig, as well as the jazz legends Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette and the late Tony Williams. It's another collaboration with Bill Laswell, their first since 1988's Perfect Machine.

"We wanted to use a spontaneous approach as the foundation to the album, very right-brain, and not dependent on the analytical left brain," explains Hancock. "The normal way Bill works is to prepare some things, put some stuff on the tracks, and then he'd present them to me. I would listen to them, and we would figure out how we were going to develop it. But this time, when he presented the tracks to me, I was on a keyboard, and he pressed the "record" button and got my immediate response. So I was hearing it for the first time, and responding to it without knowing where it was going. Then we listened back to that, and if we heard something that sounded like it could be the beginning of a melody or something, we would take that and build things from there. You can do things like that now, cut and paste parts together; when he was editing, Bill functioned like one of the musicians – it wasn't limited to post-production."

Though increasingly commonplace in dance and hip-hop music, that kind of editing is still more the exception than the rule in jazz, which remains doggedly devoted to the principle of capturing a player's performance as purely as possible, rather than transforming it.

"But this is not your normal type of jazz," says Hancock. "It's not your normal kind of anything. When I make more conventional jazz recordings, I have a band responding to each other, and it's live playing. I was never in the studio with anybody else; the only thing I did was overdubs. Bill told me who was playing on a track, and I put melodies and harmonies on and really shaped it. I hadn't met them beforehand."

That process must have been especially spooky in the case of the track "Tony Williams", which features Hancock's late colleague from the old Miles Davis quintet.

"Bill had at one point been talking with Tony Williams about producing one of his records," explains Hancock. "It never really came to pass, but they did make that track, just the bass and drums, and Bill thought this would be an appropriate project to use that track on. I thought, 'Wow, this is great – I got a chance to play with Tony again!' The same thing with Wayne Shorter, too. He was amazing."

The result is an album that makes an almost seamless link with Hancock's fusion work from three decades ago, one that helps to keep alive the pioneering principles he absorbed from Davis.

"There were a lot of things I learnt from Miles," he says. "Maybe the greatest lesson – which I later learnt, through the Buddhism I practise, to regard as not just a music lesson but a life lesson – is that things that happen are neither good nor bad; it's what you do with them that determines whether they're constructive or destructive. I remember once playing the wrong chord at the wrong time, and Miles played some notes that made my chord right – because I don't think he heard it as wrong; he just heard it as something that happened."

Herbie Hancock appears tonight at the Manchester Apollo. The album 'Future 2 Future' is available on Transparent Records