After Herbie Hancock won the 2008 album of the year Grammy Award for “River: The Joni Letters,” he did what anyone would do after a tremendous professional accomplishment: He sat down to watch TV. As Hancock watched the PBS documentary “Journey of Man”-which traces the human migration out of Africa through genetic markers in the population today-he started crying. He remembers tears running down his face as he watched, awed at the biological interconnectedness of mankind, and he immediately decided he had to explore this theme in his next project.
To create “Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project,” the jazz legend is traveling the globe recording songs in the home countries of more than a dozen musicians, including Anoushka and Ravi Shankar in Mumbai, India; Jeff Beck in London; Dave Matthews in San Francisco; and Oumou Sangaré in Bamako, Mali. But this isn’t a run-of-the-mill musical ethnography: Hancock and each artist will collaborate on an original composition, mixing languages and musical styles from their respective countries, and each will speak to a broader theme of music transcending borders.
While a label and theatrical distributor is yet to be announced for the project, both the album and an accompanying documentary film are expected in first-quarter 2010. Hancock anticipates that he will remix the tracks on the album and make those versions of the songs available online. Plans are in the early stages to produce additional online video content from the documentary, and special concerts with project participants are in the works. Larry Klein, the veteran who produced Hancock’s “River,” will serve as the album’s producing consultant, while Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (2008’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won the Oscar for best documentary feature) will produce the film.
Billboard: You’re traveling the globe for this, but this isn’t a world music project per se.
Herbie Hancock: I wanted to do something that connects with people from America-that doesn’t feel foreign to them, but is not just the same old, same old that they’ve been hearing. This is America-we’re related to everywhere. What can I do to bring that idea to the forefront? When I go to Japan and I look at the charts, I’ll see several records that are familiar to me that are from America, and the rest are artists that I’ve never heard of singing in Japanese. But all the records from America are all in English-and I don’t want this to be one of those records. We can think outside of this place. We can think of where we can all come from. Globalization has been given a really rotten name because people are afraid of the worst that it could be. It’s our responsibility to make globalization be what we want it to be. This is a record for the world.
What was it like going to India and working with Ravi Shankar and his daughter, Anoushka?
Ravi was so cool. He did this master class at his school there with some students from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, plus other performers like George Duke and Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chaka Khan. He came up and starting talking about different aspects of Indian classical music. They have this language that they use for expressing the sounds of the tabla [drum]: “Ta” is a certain sound; “geen” is another one. So he sings this rhythm with these sounds, and the tabla player played it. And then he sang a melody for the sitar player, and the sitar player played it-then Ravi sang another rhythm while the sitar player repeated the melody. It was really cool.
When we recorded the song-the words were written by a German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke-I wanted it to be done in Hindi or another Indian language. The Indian singer we had, her name was Chitra and she’s from south India-she doesn’t speak Hindi, and she doesn’t read Urdu. So we had to-and this is really bizarre, but it’s so beautiful and fits into the concept-we had to do a Romanized phonetic translation so that she would know how to pronounce the words.
You just got back from San Francisco where you recorded with Dave Matthews. Did you plan anything out ahead of time?
He just had a melodic idea with some chords. And we were sitting in the green room in the Fantasy Studios in San Francisco and he had this small guitar [a short-scale Gryphon by Joe Veillette-and the sound from it is] intimate, it’s acoustic. He played the first two chords and not only did it not sound like a Dave Matthews song, it didn’t sound like anything I had heard from pop music. I said, “Wait a minute-I’m hearing some kind of gamelan thing.” I’ve been to Bali three times. I found a gamelan sound on the synthesizer. I overdubbed it, and it just worked.
While we were listening to playbacks and doing some fixing of things, Dave was sitting in the corner of the studio and he had a pad, and he’s sitting there writing. He’s telling me the words, and it starts out with, “Falling off the roof/Looking up at the stars/Trying to get away from this world” … and I’m like, “Oh, this is deep.” [Laughs.] Then I asked Dave, because I had already talked about the concept of the project, “How do you feel about it being translated into either Balinese or Indonesian?” He said, “Go for it.”
How long did all this take to come together?
Over the course of one day. Marcus Miller [who plays bass on the track] said, “You think about how some of the kids today will wonder how we did this: ‘You actually played all in the studio live together?!’ ” [Laughs.]
Jeff Beck also appears on the album-you recorded a song with him in London.
He and two of the members of his current touring band-[drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta, who has also been working with me, and Tal Wilkenfeld, a bass player from Australia-she’s great, she’s 22 or 23 and she can play. Anyway, Jeff is really good. I knew he was good, but when I got a chance to actually work with him? He’s really good. Just playing a melody, every note has its own personality, and it’s not as though everything is predetermined – it’s all in the moment.
Since all of these sessions are being filmed for the documentary, I assume it captures some of the fun of live performance?
In the back of my mind, I want to capture the sense of respect for each other, of collaboration, inclusiveness-and the arts can tell that story. Especially in music, because what we do is not about competition.
What’s next on your itinerary?
We’re planning on going to Mali. We met [singer] Oumou Sangaré in Paris-she’s amazing. She has an automobile business. She’s made relationships with manufacturers in Asia, and she’s importing cars. She’s selling them, but trying to make it feasible in the economy for the people there.
She only performs at her club [in Bamako, Mali] once a week, and she starts at midnight and goes until early in the morning. We’re hoping that she will sing in French and Bambara, the Malian language. But I’ve been thinking about it-to go over there just to do one song is expensive to go there and come back. Maybe we should make it a bit more cost-effective and go to some other countries while we’re there. We’re going to look into going to Cameroon and Senegal.
We’ve been thinking about doing some Celtic music, and we found something with some Sudanese music where they use accordion. And I listened to it, and I said, “That sounds like something that could be related to Irish music.” I found something on a podcast from iTunes that when I played that and then played the African music, I found something that could be put together.
Music has long been infused with politics, and obviously titling something “Imagine” is very evocative.
The name of the project was actually suggested by my lawyer. It’s the most unlikely place for an idea that comes from the greater self as opposed to the lesser self. [Laughs.] But he’s that kind of guy-Ken Hertz, he’s a real humanist, and he’s not just my lawyer, he’s my friend.
I used to define myself as a musician, and at a certain point I began to realize that I’m really short-changing myself. I’m only a musician when I’m playing music, or talking about music, or thinking about music, and I don’t do that 24 hours a day . . . there’s an infinite amount of ways I can look at things, and every human being has that.
I started to think, “How many ways can I look at cultures other than our own?” If I’m combining something with our relatively new American culture with something from another culture, it’s a way of us saying, “We respect you.” This is a great country with a great potential, and we need to think more of leading the way into openness than a myopic, closed kind of tunnel vision. This is one of the things that this kind of project can address.