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Herbie Hancock Salutes John Lennon, World Music in 70th Year

Herbie Hancock
Recording artist Herbie Hancock. Hancock, who turned 70 in April, celebrates his birthday and musical legacy in a concert on Sept. 1 at the Hollywood Bowl in California. Photographer: Francis Specker/Bloomberg

Herbie Hancock’s latest album takes its title from a John Lennon song that imagined a world with no national boundaries. Fittingly, “The Imagine Project” features an international group of musicians who recorded songs in cities around the globe.

The collection of 10 songs, released in June, pairs Hancock with a group that includes American jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, British guitarist Jeff Beck, Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar, Brazilian singer-songwriter Ceu, South African-born rocker Dave Matthews and American singers John Legend and Chaka Khan.

Artists from 11 nations recorded in six countries using seven languages.

“This CD is clearly about globalization and in a way is a call to arms,” Hancock, who turned 70 in April, said by phone from his Los Angeles home. “We need to put into practice the idea of embracing other cultures. We need to be shaping the kind of world we want to live in instead of waiting for someone else or some other entities to do it for us.”

After touring Europe in July, the Grammy Award-winning pianist, composer and bandleader is performing this month in the U.S., including a 70th-birthday celebration concert on Sept. 1 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Mumbai, Miami

Hancock, who has been a Buddhist for almost four decades, recorded the album in cities where his collaborators lived. “The Song Goes On” was taped with Shankar (along with Khan and Shorter) in Mumbai. Ceu sang the sultry ballad “Tempo de Amor” in Sao Paulo, while Colombia native Juanes recorded “La Tierra” in his adopted home of Miami.

Hancock said he hopes the album will help Americans better understand other cultures.

“We’re known for being arrogant, but some of it is through our own ignorance,” Hancock said.

While the CD isn’t a blockbuster, it has found an audience among jazz fans. “Imagine” peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s jazz charts and is currently ranked No. 6. Commercial success wasn’t Hancock’s main goal, however.

“I wanted to make a record that didn’t sound foreign to Americans, but would be foreign at the same time,” he said. “That was a challenge, but I think I achieved it.”

Child Prodigy

In his 54 recordings, the Chicago native has etched a permanent mark on jazz, funk and rhythm and blues. A child prodigy, he performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was 11. His first recording, “Takin’ Off” attracted the attention of trumpeter Miles Davis in 1962. Davis asked Hancock to join his band of young lions, which included Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.

In the 1970s, Hancock branched out into a blend of jazz and funk with his groundbreaking group, the Head Hunters, which produced the hit single “Chameleon.” His Grammy-winning instrumental, “Rockit,” one of the first pop songs to incorporate turntable scratching sounds, thrust him into the mainstream in 1983.

Although he continued to record jazz records, his genre-blending collaborations have earned the most praise. His 2007 tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters,” won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album and Album of the Year.

When Hancock takes the stage at the Hollywood Bowl next month, he’ll reunite with Juanes, Shorter and guitarist Derek Trucks to play songs from the “Imagine” sessions.

Classical CD

Hancock’s current touring band includes Greg Phillinganes, a former music director for Michael Jackson; guitarist Lionel Loueke; bassist/vocalist Kristina Train; and Grammy-winning drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. He’ll also perform some of his signature jazz compositions with Shorter.

Inspired by his concerts last year with Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Hancock said he may record a classical CD. But music doesn’t consume all his time and energy.

“I no longer perceive myself as being just a musician,” said Hancock, who holds the creative jazz chair at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I perceive myself as a human being first, and being a musician is something I do. My concerns today are much larger than the field of music.”

For information on Hancock’s U.S. tour:

(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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