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Herbie Hancock brings quest for personal and musical growth to Music at the Intersection

Longtime musical innovator Herbie Hancock will lead his quintet on Sunday at the third annual Music at the Intersection in St. Louis.
Douglas Kirkland
Longtime musical innovator Herbie Hancock will lead his quintet on Sunday at the third annual Music at the Intersection in St. Louis.

Herbie Hancock made his mark on jazz in the 1960s as a talented composer and bandleader, as well as the twentysomething pianist who pushed the boundaries of post-bop with the Miles Davis Quintet.

Then the one-time acoustic purist fell in love with the Fender Rhodes electric piano, after Davis prompted him to play the instrument in a studio session without warning. Hancock evolved his sound into synthesizer-fueled funk with 1970s group the Headhunters, and later embraced early hip-hop and incorporated elements from electronic dance music. He’s also continued to explore acoustic jazz with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Chick Corea and others.

His last record, “The Imagine Project” in 2010, saw him recording in seven countries as he brought dozens of musicians together for cross-genre collaborations, serving his mission as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.

On Sunday, Hancock will headline the second night of the 2023 Music at the Intersection festival at Grand Center.

His quintet will include Terence Blanchard on trumpet, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and Jaylen Petinaud on drums.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Hancock about his current sources for musical inspiration and his memories of Shorter, the longtime friend and collaborator who died in March.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: It seems to me that you've always had really big ears and a real thirst for new sounds and new music. Are you still listening to lots of new music and hearing new things that inspire you?

Herbie Hancock: Well, I spend a lot of time on YouTube looking at new plugin instruments that used to be analog, and are now digital plugins that can be controlled by MIDI, which I'm used to now. So one keyboard that I'm using just for the keys can play various other instruments through my computer. And they keep making more and modifying the new ones. So there's always new things coming along.

It's an exciting time for someone who's a techie guy like me, because we're living in a technological age right now. So I'm looking forward to AI. I'm looking forward to this future, which is coming faster than we imagined.

Goodwin: You grew up by taking things apart and putting them back together again. And not too long after that, you were kind of doing that musically?

Hancock: It kind of fits the picture, doesn't it?

Goodwin: It does. Last month you organized an all-star tribute to Wayne Shorter, your friend and longtime collaborator who died earlier this year. How did you two meet?

Hancock: It was while recording a Donald Byrd record in the early 1960s. Donald asked me to be on this recording, and he had also called Wayne Shorter.

Once I got into Miles' band, Tony [Williams] and I really wanted Wayne to come in, because the band was moving in some new directions, and Wayne's playing was right there. Wayne was a perfect fit for that.

Goodwin: He was the last piece who joined that group, wasn’t he? The group that we now know as Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.

Hancock: Yes, he was. And I'll never forget the first night we played together with Wayne. Wayne had no rehearsals, nothing at all. And just as we're about to walk onstage, Miles took him aside and said, “You know my songs?” Wayne nodded yes. And Miles just beckoned toward the stage. We went up to the stage, and Wayne just tore through every piece. It was exactly what Tony Williams and I were hoping for. And Ron [Carter, the bassist] of course was extremely happy with a tour de force like that.

Goodwin: In just the few months since Wayne Shorter left us, how have you noticed his absence?

Hancock: I don't notice his absence.

He's still in my heart. He hasn't gone anywhere. Yes, I know Wayne passed.

But he hasn't passed from me. So I don't feel that sense of absence. Not a bit.

And maybe that sounds strange. But it's kind of reassuring to me that Wayne is still here, in various forms. His music is still here. The recordings are still here. His legacy is here.

Goodwin: What did you have in common in the ways you think about music?

Hancock: It’s hard to put into words. It’s easier to put into music.

His view of life really coincided in many ways as an example of what the Buddhism that we practice is about. We believe that life is eternal, that it’s like chapters in a book that has no beginning and no end.

Most people would rather have the joy of life but not the pain. But everybody experiences pain and joy, that's what life is about. But we wouldn't learn anything if we didn't experience pain sometimes. And the learning is turning poison into medicine.

Goodwin: What in your creative life makes you the most excited right now?

Hancock: Living and growing. Even though I'm 83 years old, I never want to stop growing in my understanding of life and being able to share
what I've been learning and what I've been experiencing with other people, and being able to interact with the next generation.

One thing I learned from practicing Buddhism is that what I do is play music. But that's not what I am. What I am is a human being. And that opens up — that takes all the walls away. There are no pigeonholes there. And so it opens my life up to being able to explore other avenues for my own growth and my own interaction with other other people. And hopefully, I can be an asset.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.