Herbie Hancock Goes Beyond Jazz

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

Lately Herbie Hancock has been popping up in the strangest places: Internet chat rooms about Christina Aguilera and on John Mayer's Web site; at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., as the music and arts festival's first-ever artist in residence; in Japan with Carlos Santana at a series of concerts commemorating the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hancock has a long history of exploring beyond jazz parameters, beginning with his 1973 electric-funk album "Head Hunters" and his 1983 MTV-friendly, techno-funk single "Rockit" from "Future Shock." Additionally, DJs have liberally sampled his material, including his tune "Cantaloupe Island," recorded during his early solo years while still a member of Miles Davis' classic '60s quintet.

But with the release of his new album, "Possibilities," Hancock ups the crossover ante. The 10-track set features the 65-year-old pianist collaborating with young stars (Mayer, Aguilera, Raul Midon and Joss Stone) and veterans (Sting, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Annie Lennox and Santana). The result is a gear-shifting collection of pop tunes undergirded by a jazz sensibility that cultivates music free of genre borders.

"They brought what they do to the table, and I brought what I do to the table," Hancock says. "The result is a music that allows us to all go outside the pigeonholes the music business forces us to stay in. We're breaking down expectations, walking the tightrope while not scaring our fan bases away."

Case in point: Aguilera's show-stopping cover of Leon Russell's balladic gem, "Song for You," which sheds a new light on her vocal prowess. Hancock, who dreamily accompanies, says, "Christina's delivery is stellar."

The CD, jointly issued by Hear Music, Vector Recordings and Hancock Music, will be launched Aug. 30 at retail and Starbucks locations. It comes one year after Concord Records and the coffee chain's Hear imprint issued Ray Charles' posthumous "Genius Loves Company." According to Nielsen SoundScan, Starbucks' North American stores have sold 775,000 copies of the triple-platinum disc, which debuted Aug. 31, 2004.

Hancock is fully aware of the comparisons likely to be made, especially with the Starbucks connection and the duets.

"But this represents a different way of collaboration than Ray's album," he says. "We were composing on the fly in many instances, improvising new songs and coming up with different arrangements of other songs. We pretty much recorded all the sessions with the artists and a full rhythm section and did only a minimum of overdubs. We played together with a spirit of 'anything is possible.'"

Thus, the title of the album that is steeped in the jazz essence of improvisation. Hancock works with Sting to reimagine the latter's "Sister Moon" with African flavors arranged by Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, and with Simon to re-envision his "I Do It for Your Love" with subtly layered percussion.

As for new tunes, Hancock and guitarist Trey Anastasio cooked up the instrumental "Gelo No Montana," while the pianist and Mayer spontaneously combust on the highlight of the CD, the catchy, uptempo leadoff number "Stitched Up."

"I was interested in John's music, and I liked his voice," says Hancock, who had never met Mayer -- or, for that matter, many of the artists with whom he worked. "He came to the studio with a fragment. We played around with it and structured it at the tracking session, and on the spot he sang scratch vocals, some of which are in the final mix."

So impressed was Hancock with the creative alchemy, he enlisted Mayer to join the latest incarnation of his Headhunters band that played Bonnaroo.

"Possibilities" will be sold at Starbucks outlets worldwide, unlike "Genius," which was sold only in North American stores. (Hancock is signed to Verve, but he is not bound contractually to the company for projects that lie beyond straight-ahead jazz.) "We all participated in one form or another," says Ken Levitan, who runs Vector with Jack Rovner.

Outside of Starbucks locations, the marketing will entail TV ads, extensive print advertising and an aggressive outreach to adult radio, which is being serviced the complete album. "Herbie will be touring, and we're hoping to put together a special event or two that will include collaborators," Rovner says. In addition, he notes, all the tracking sessions were filmed and could take form as a theatrical release or a PBS program.

As for Hancock, the experience was such a treat that he is already compiling a list for another collaborative disc. "At the beginning we were looking at this not as a record but a project," he says. "A lot of people expressed interest, but because of scheduling conflicts couldn't participate. So, there's a lot more to explore."

Excerpted from the Aug. 27, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.

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