In 1983, the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock released the album Future Shock. “Rockit,” the hit single off that disc, brought him a generation of fans who hadn't been aware of Hancock's pioneering work with Miles Davis and other jazz greats. At a time when most major jazz figures avoided rock and beat box-influenced idioms altogether, or approached them with ill-concealed disdain, Hancock jumped in, plugged in and had fun.
Along with producer Bill Laswell, Hancock also helped create the electronica style that today has many branches and practitioners. In the years since his techno breakthrough, Hancock has been all over the map musically, but has mostly played acoustic jazz, much to the delight of his traditional fan base. But now, with the release of Future2Future, the Hancock/Laswell team has revisited the creative approach they brought to the Future Shock sessions. Collaborating with electronica and hip hop stars Carl Craig, D.J. Rob Swift, A Guy Called Gerald and DXT, they have created a playful admixture of improvisations, beats and electronic textures. Mix spoke with Hancock and Laswell about the album, which was released last fall on the Transparent Music label.
Do you like Bela Bartok's music?
Hancock: Funny question. Yeah, I do. Some of his stuff almost sounds like games. I believe in the same way of working. On the new record, we have examples of that approach, where things collide randomly. We believe these accidents work, and so why won't you? The cut “Alpha Beta” is a good example. There are three or four different elements to the track. It may not have the intellectual side [of Bartok], which we stayed away from, but it has lots of spontaneity. Some of the pieces sound like parts of a jigsaw puzzle that don't fit together, according to our normal rules. But I think that's the beauty of the album. It contains a sense of naivete coming from the artist.
Laswell: Most people don't realize how records are made. The direction and concept are often a mystery to them. I approached Herbie with the concept of basing Future2Future around him as the center, the improviser and the vehicle. Herbie created the nucleus of these pieces.
Herbie was one of the people introducing these kinds of ideas, including combining different kinds of sounds and approaches, early on. He wasn't afraid to repeat electronic ideas and then use them together with jazz stylings. Future2Future is a fusion of all the things he's experienced as a musician.
Much of the technology that was radical in 1983, whenFuture Shockwas released, is now standard and accepted. Did that have any effect on your enthusiasm about working in the electronica medium?
Hancock: Science has been a big part of my life since I was a kid, and I'd had some listening experience with electronic music since the '60s. Tony Williams turned me on to Stockhausen! And I met him one night in either the late '60s or early '70s. After the last set, some people were sitting around, but I went upstairs to get ready to go home. A guy came to the top of the steps telling me someone downstairs wanted me — someone named Stockhausen. He had no idea I'd ever heard of him. My favorite electronic piece is his “Gesangderjunlinger.” The pacing, the way things are laid out, the tension and release are great. He was blown away that I even knew who he was! He was getting ready to work on a piece that utilized several national anthems and asked me if I would record our anthem and send him the tape. I never got around to it, but he did come out with this composition. I'm still interested in combining electronic elements with live playing.
How involved were you in developing the textures and overall sonic palette onFuture2Future?
Hancock: The initial stuff was put together by Bill Laswell. He put some things on tapes — maybe just drums and bass. Many of the initial electronic elements were on these tapes that came to me. I put all my stuff on top.
Laswell: The whole idea is to do everything in short pieces. I did all my pre-production work at my studio out in West Orange, New Jersey. Robert Musso, the engineer who worked on this project with me, and I mixed out there as well.
We've got some Studer tape decks and a Pro Tools rig. I'd take these short pieces — drum loops and electronica parts, for example — and mix them with effects until they were done. The whole idea is to build these small cells. Every section is its own area, almost as if each of them — which could be as small as four or eight bars — was its own complete song. When they were complete, we'd transfer them over to Pro Tools. We didn't use the computer to mix, but only for editing and crossfading these tiny electronic cells.
There's a big danger in the current focus on technology. People have forgotten what they're trying to express. Most studios are set up by people who are constantly referring to the latest technology rather than creativity. It's a difficult balancing act.
Herbie, has your sense of dissonance, or what constitutes a nonharmonic tone, changed at all over the years?
Hancock: Yeah. That's a strange question! What I may have thought in the past was dissonant doesn't necessarily seem dissonant to me anymore. Maybe it's an acquired taste.
Miles Davis influenced me in this area. Whatever we'd be doing as a rhythm section, his playing would let us know where the center was of what we may have been doing individually. He brought a sense of the whole. I remember one night, it was a great night for the band. The music was building, the audience was right there with us, and at the peak of Miles' solo on “So What” I played a really wrong chord. Miles took a breath and played a phrase that made my chord right. Miles didn't hear it as wrong, but instead as something that happened. His job was to make it sound right. Through my practice of Buddhism, I realized this was a life lesson. Very often, this means coming out of the box of looking at things one way, to create new realities. This will let you bypass obstacles.
I listen to a lot of music that young artists today are making — people who haven't had formal musical training. Sometimes I ask myself how they could put a bass line against the chords they're using, since it doesn't fit. But there's something pure about their approach that I'm attracted to. We used some of that approach on this record, putting elements together with abandon and not worrying about whether things fit in with our European-trained sensibilities.
One of the pieces started out with a backward electronica track and Jack DeJonette playing drums to it — that's it, no bass at all. I added a melody and some solos. Bill transferred my performances over to Pro Tools, and then cut and pasted bits of my solo into different parts of the song.
Laswell: The juxtaposition of ideas is what's important. We took the acoustic performances and mixed them with repetitive electronica elements. The purpose is to create something in the editing process that's special and unique.