Herbie Hancock comes to Abu Dhabi

Ahead of his Abu Dhabi Festival performance on Friday, the jazz legend Herbie Hancock talks to us about relishing change.

Herbie Hancock at his home in Los Angeles. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters. February 2, 2011
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Every past edition of the Abu Dhabi Festival has brought a musical legend to the capital.

This year is no different, with the arrival of the American jazz maestro Herbie Hancock.

The 73-year-old pianist is set to take the Emirates Palace stage on Friday with a sold-out performance focusing on choice selections from a career spanning five decades.

All those years saw the Chicago native dart from being a hot jazz commodity to a popular star with hit singles and multiple Grammy awards.

Despite the eclectic albums, which saw him explore jazz, fusion, funk, R&B and electro, Hancock says each project begins the same way: “The first thing is the purpose. Why I should do this? From that I develop the concept of what it is that I want to do to answer that why.”

Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock was a child prodigy and performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 26 in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11.

His career took an even bigger leap when, in 1963, he received a phone call from the late Miles Davis to join his quintet.

With Davis leading the way on the trumpet, Hancock slotted in perfectly alongside the bassist Ron Carter, the drummer Tony Williams and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

In what is now referred to in jazz circles as Davis’s second great quintet, the group went on to cut six studio albums embodying Davis’s revolutionary “time, no changes” ethos – a fluid approach that relied heavily on improvisation.

Hancock remembers being awed by what was required.

Comfortable playing his position as band leader or part of an orchestra, Hancock says Davis treated all members as equals.

“Miles always told us that we were being paid to try new things,” he recalls. “So in other words, as along as you are trying this and trying that then he is happy.”

And what would happen if some of the experimentation didn’t work?

“Miles would just say, ‘Don’t worry, I will take care of that.’

“This means that he put a lot of trust in us and gave us so much freedom, but at the same time he had faith in his ability to bring it all back together no matter what we did.”

Hancock eventually left the group in 1969, but the lessons from the experience endured with him as he formed his own bands and released a series of experimental and avant-garde recordings.

Hancock’s first big commercial success came with 1973’s Head Hunters. Hailed as a masterpiece, he married the jazz spirit of improvisation with rugged beats found in funk and soul.

Hancock’s dizzying solos on the synthesisers also announced the instrument’s arrival to the jazz world.

He returned to mainstream again in 2007 with River: The Joni Letters, a star-studded covers album dedicated to his close friend, the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.

The album’s success, including a 2008 Grammy award for Album of the Year, whetted Hancock’s appetite for more collaborations.

His latest release, 2010’s The Imagine Project, found Hancock produce an album recorded in seven different languages (English artists include John Legend, Pink and Seal) in 11 ­different cities.

Once again, it began with a ­question.

“I was thinking about this 21st century and what it is going to be about. I believe it would be a century of humanity,” Hancock says.

“It doesn’t look that way right now because the world is in such turmoil from so many different things, not only from man’s relationship with man but our relationship with the environment. But I believe that many of the solutions that we need will come as a result of various backgrounds, cultures and religions coming together in mutual respect.”

Talking about his Abu Dhabi show, Hancock says fans should expect classic works with a twist.

“I will probably be playing some pieces that have been most popular over the years.

“But these pieces have evolved and I don’t play them the same way they are on the records. I may start that way and they may segue to pieces that may not be that familiar and then come back. I like to have an element of surprise to each show.”

It also underscores the theme of transformation echoing throughout Hancock’s career.

It’s not just a musical style, he says, it’s his approach to life: “Change is a very important colour for life,” he says.

“It allows for continual evolution, continual development, continual surprises and growth. I welcome change. I love change. It is one of my most important inspirations.”

• Herbie Hancock performs at the Emirates Palace Auditorium on Friday at 7pm. Tickets are sold out