A Conversation With Herbie Hancock & John McLaughlin

By Bret Primack

(Reprinted from JazzTimes magazine: May 1996)

Herbie Hancock's first acoustic recording as a leader in too many years is The New Standard. John McLaughlin's latest CD offering his usual eclectic amalgam of guitar virtuosity is The Promise. Both are on the Verve label and one bitter afternoon in New York, their planetary peregrinations miraculously converged.
Although we are living in a time when most people are bombarded with more information than they can possibly digest, I must, nevertheless, offer these facts:
Herbie's group includes Michael Brecker, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Don Alias, along with woodwinds, brass and strings that Herbie arranged with Bob Belden.
John's collaborators include Michael Brecker (this guy really gets around, doesn't he?), David Sanborn, Jeff Beck, Joey DeFrancesco, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia along with some verse by Dante and Garcia Lorca.
The New Standard features Herbie's take on nine pop anthems, tunes like "NorwegianWood," "You've Got It Bad Girl," "Stronger Than Pride" and "Scarborough Fair" with one majestic solo piano original, "Manhattan."
Aside from the John Lewis standard "Django" and Jimmy RowIes "The Peacocks," The Promise features John's compositions in a multitude of settings including his current trio, with DeFrancesco and Dennis Chambers.


BP: When did you first meet?
JM: On a Miles session.

BP: Which one?
HH: In A Silent Way.

BP: What do you remember about that session?
HH: I remember John coming outside after we finished and leaning over to me and saying,'Herbie, was that OK what we did?' He said, 'I have no idea what we were doing.' So I said, 'welcome to a Miles Davis session' (laughs).
JM: It was incredible.
HH: Yeah. You could never tell what was going on with Miles. You'd always leave the session not knowing if they got anything of any value because it was always so different.

JM: Of course I grew up with the records of Miles and Herbie. In fact, I was just talking to Herbie about some of the records that I love to this day, they're so phenomenal and so advanced. Like the Avery Fisher Hall concerts from 1964. It was strange because I grew up listening to a different kind of music. I grew up listening to what Miles did with Trane, and then ESP, Nefertiti, Live in Berlin, some out things, straightahead, but crazy.

And here, what we played wasn't like that at all. Right off, I was nervous. Miles wasn't into that other stuff, well he was into it, but he was looking for something else and since he didn't really know what he was looking for, I didn't know, nobody knew, and so when he started giving me these obscure suggestions like, play the guitar like you don't know how to play.
HH: Did he tell you that?
JM: Yeah.
HH: Right, I remember. The innocence. He wanted the innocence.
JM: And these guys are saying, yeah, that's a new one. We didn't hear that one before.
HH: (laughs)

JM: I was in awe, I was in awe of Miles. He was my hero since I was 15 years old. It's like when you meet your hero after so many years, you're not in a normal state of mind. You're nervousä
HH: I remember you were nervous. But you didn't play like you were nervous.
JM: Well, he cooled me out when he said that. I just started to do the thing in E, "In A Silent Way," and I played the whole thing very open in E major. Miles didn't even wait, he had the recording light on and I just started playing these real simple things, and then Wayne came in with the melody and then Miles and Wayne together. But when Miles had Teo Maceo (the producer) play the take back, I was really in shock at how Miles had made me play in a way that I had not been aware of. He had a way of pulling something out me that I would have never figured out myself, which is uncanny. Of course in subsequent sessions with him I could see that Miles had an incredible gift. Sometimes he'd come in and not have a clear idea of what he wanted himself, not even a concept. Or maybe just a concept and no notes. So we'd go in there and he'd write something on a bag on the way over in a taxi and at the session, he just sang something. Just a sound.
HH: Right, with no pitch or anything.
JM: And you'd make your own sense out of it. But I remember that day. It will stay engraved in my memory. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life, maybe the most beautiful day.
HH: Miles' sessions were not typical of anybody else's sessions. They were totally unique. You never knew, when you came out of there, what you did, or whether it was good. It never sounded good to me. It always sounded interesting but you wondered, what were we doing? I just grew to accept it. Because when the records came out, they would come out sounding really nice.

JM: In the mid-'60s, I was a European waiting for Miles' records to come out. Of course I knew about Herbie from the first release with Miles, wasn't it Miles in Europe?
HH: Yeah, I was on that, but I did one called Seven Steps to Heaven before that.
JM: The European musicians would be waiting for the records to come out and we'd just hear the most avant garde music and we'd all be saying, 'oh, listen to that,' because it was always the most refreshing, beautiful music. Of course we couldn't have imagined what was going on in the studio so it's very interesting to hear now, retrospectively, what was going on in the studio in view of my experience in '69. It was like a different form. Like an unknown quantity.
HH: I just trusted it.
JM: I'm glad you did. (both laugh)

HH: I know that somehow it was going to turn out OK because Miles never had anything that was a disappointment.
JM: You know it's very funny, to be sitting here talking to you. I have the record, L'Cote Jazz Miles and Miles in Paris, these old bootlegs which came out later and I listen to "My Funny Valentine" or "Stella by Starlight," where Herbie does the introduction dramatically different every time. Musically for me, I must say categorically, how happy I am to be here associated with Herbie today because I have such admiration for him as a musician. What he was doing 30 years ago, as an individual and collectively with the group-wow, I've listened to I don't know how many versions of these tunes and every time is just like a musical shock because it was so different. Of course, we know that Miles was a driving force with all of us, he was guiding all of us into places we didn't know existed because the way he'd turn a phrase of the melody and you'd hear Herbie playing accompaniment and then Herbie would play in a completely different wayä
HH: (laughing) I would have to.

JM: For someone like myself who's a musician who has made a comparison of these kinds of interpretations, it's just astounding. And I hate to say I don't hear that today, Bret. I don't hear that today. I don't know what happened, if people have become more conservative or something but I don't hear this wonderful lyricism and harmonic adventure in music. OK, Miles is not with us, we know. But it's become more conservative.
HH: It's almost like nobody took that and at least started there and see what happens, is there something beyond that.
JM: There are people who have repeated that kind of thing, the concepts, too.
HH: Mostly some of the earlier ones, not that later stuff. They haven't figured it out yet. Some of the stuff, I don't remember how we did it. Even the things that are on the Plugged Nickel set. I don't know how we did some of that.
JM: I don't know either.
HH: Some of that was really some strange stuff, but it was fascinating.
JM: That's amazing music. When I think that music was played 30 years ago.
HH: It's pretty out.

JM: That was really an exceptional period. When you think music being made in the late '50s by Miles and Gil and Trane and Cannonball and all those groups, the whole thing, that tremendous school that came out, but it seemed to for us, foreigners, looking from afar, when Bill came in, and thenä
HH: Wynton Kellyä
JM: Right and then Victor came in for a while. Beautiful.
HH: Yeah,Victor Feldman.
JM: For us, it was like non-stop, then something happened, a kind of conservatism. It was just so thriving, but I have faith in the music. I'm not knocking today, I'm criticizing the conservatism that I find in music.

HH: I have a theory about these times. TechnoIogy has made so much information available but what the technological community has not done is to make any attempt for us to figure our how we're going to assimilate all this information. It's coming in so quickly, faster than we can really assimilate it. Music videos on MTV are the perfect example. Everything is quick visual and sound bytes. Same thing on TV, people's attention span is not really long at all.
JM: It's getting shorter and shorter.
HH: Exacty. There's so much stuff going onä
JM: Maybe hit records will become ten seconds long.
HH: Could be. I think a lot of young people being brought up in this scene feel a sense of ruthlessness. There's nothing to plant them deeply down in the soil somehow so they can bend and sway from there. A lot of this look backwards in society and musically is to find some of the real roots, because they can't find them here.There are roots in the past, but not so much now. Maybe this explains their need to do that, and if that's the case, it's OK.

JM: There are great musicians today. I don't mean to lionize Miles or Coltrane even though they were my personal heroes 'cause they don't need me to lionize them. They're already lions.
HH: That was a different time too. It was very fertile for jazz, very exciting.
JM: Yes it was.
HH: The scene was in the clubs more than in the concerts, so there was a personal element.
JM: That's true. Society was different. Where the fears of the '60s had to do with the war, the civil rights movement, the fear today is, am I going to lose my job?
HH: Right. Exactly.
JM: That kind of fear is more insidious.The fear is a lot more clear cut. In the '60s, nobody worried about being unemployed.
HH: The kinds of things you're talking about are all very personal, having to do with your family, where some of the things in the '60s were about society in general. That puts a whole different slant on things. People are afraid to spend money now because they don't know how long they're going to be working.

BP: Is that a planetary thing or just in this country?
JM: It's the same in Europe.
HH: It's getting that way in Japan too.
JM: Just look at record sales. They're like a luxury item and the first thing that gets hit when there's a crisis is record salesäbut there's no crisis in musicä
BP: Aren't there more artists now, as opposed to the '60s? The seeds you planted have blossomed and now there are musicians all over the world playing this music.
HH: There are a lot of records coming out, in every field of music, not just jazz.
JM: But that's great, more people are listening to music. There's no crisis in music. People can listen to it now in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in the car, they've got the speakers everywhere.
HH: Back in the '60s, they didn't even have cassettes.
JM: That's right.
HH: Nowadays people jog and listen to music. Workout and listen to music. They've got these headphones on all the time. It's just the normal scene.
JM: I think maybe it's relative to this thing about the spread of information. A CD is reproducible in high quality on DAT or mini-diskette or even great audio casssettes now so you can reproduce the information, the musical information from the CD very easily. We are swimming in information, musical and non-musical.

BP: Do you think technology can be a tool of empowerment so that musicians not on your skill level can nevertheless play music because of the technological things they can plug into? Perhaps more people today are participating than just listening.
HH: That would be the good news, not that people shouldn't listen, but if they are participating, that's good. If the technology is not only available, but if it's friendly enough and attractive enough to encourage people to create somehow, whether it's good or badä
JM: It's good and it's bad in my opinion and the good thing is that it allows us to print music very quickly, prepare scores very easily and very quickly. But the other side is that I see people shutting themselves in their rooms instead of being out playing with people. There's no substitute for communicating with brothers and sisters or least a similar spirit, which is really what the nature of music is. You make music with people for people.
HH: We used to have a lot more jam sessions.
JM: People tend to just be in the studio with sequencers and stuff.
HH: They can do everything themselves. But there's no sense of group empathy or communication.
JM: I did a Master Class in Paris a couple of months ago, just for guitarists at one of the best schools in Paris. There were eight guitar players and we were in a club with a very good rhythm section, all between 21 and 28 with very high level of playing except for one thing. They don't play with the rhythm section. They're just off into their own thing. Nothing else exists, which is a trait, a tendency of what happens when you play with a computer or a sequencer all the time. Playing music is beautiful, but to play together is one of the great lessons that we learned from Miles and Trane and Herbie and Tony and all the guys who've done it. To play together. So that's the downside I see. Otherwise, technology is great.

BP: Could the Internet develop into a way for people to come together and play?
HH: It's possible.
JM: You'd miss that flesh and blood man.
HH: It's different than creating in the same location, certainly.
JM: How could you see somebody sweating next to you?
HH: It's primitive now, but when you get to the point here you could see someone's face on your screen while you perform with them, that's a step in the right direction. The way to really do it is with virtual reality, where you actually get the full 3-D image of a person. Wear these glasses and actually see the band around you. Wouldn't that be far out, have it in 3-D?

JM: Wearing those shades?
HH: You'd be cool. Those things will come. Now, it's very primitive. But talking about the good side of technology, look how far it's come. I just wish more attention could be placed on the human being. We've been looking at machines for so long, I really wish the technology community would look at human beings first for a change, let's balance the thing out.

I've started something called the Rhythm of Life Foundation to encourage the technological community to develop ideas and software that directly effect the advancement of humanity. Look at the human condition and say, how can we use technology to address the needs of humanity. That hasn't been done. Everything has focused on what the technology is capable of doing and making tools and then taking human beings and saying, what can you do with that. Spreadsheets and business things.
JM: There have been some advancements, like solar heating for African countries that don't have oil.
HH: But I'm talking about responsibility, a sense of responsibility. DeveIoping software to help human beings develop more of a sense of responsibility. Kids need that. Adults need it too. More self worth. More self-respect.

BP: Against the backdrop of all these changes, in society and technology, how do you see your roles as musicians?
JM: I feel very privileged to be a musician. But we're all born from the same mother, Mother Earth, and that's it. As a musician, that's the real world for me. Playing music, you can be who you really are.You can have violent emotions or you can be tender or sensual, whatever. Music is beautiful, whether it's Trane or from the North Pole or Africa, it doesn't matter because it's music and it's real. That's why music is much more the real world than society. I would like society to reflect much more the rarity of the musical world.
HH: I always hope that as a performer I'm able to come out with something that not only makes people feel inspired but even beyond that, I always hope that what happens on the stage makes people feel like they can do it. Like no matter what happens, this would be the ultimate, they can make something positive happen. Feel like going to work the next day, even knowing the boss is a jerk, feel like, they can change that, I'm going to turn that around. That kind of theme, be part of that.

We're not going to get rid of problems. I think there's a great beauty to having problems. That's one of the ways we learn. This is something I learned from Miles, first. I had this experience that I've talked about a lot of times. I was playing with Miles and we were doing this concert in Stuttgart. This was one of the nights when the band was hot. The stuff was burning, Tony Williams was smoking, Wayne wasä
JM: Scrambling those eggs.
HH: And sweating. And Miles was just playing like God-like stuff that he played. It was just smoking. And then, at this one point, which was like a peak in Miles' solo, I hit this chord that was so wrong. It was just awful. It was in the wrong place and it was like boom, I just felt like I destroyed the music. And Miles took his breath and played some notes that made my chord right.
JM: Damn.
HH: I don't know where he found these notes but he just wiped away the chord being wrong. He made this chord fit. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't even play for about two minutes. He just blew me away and what it taught me was that Miles didn't hear it as a mistake. He just heard it as an event. He just trusted it and did his musician thing and found the notes that fit that thing. I said, wait a minute, this is a lesson not just for music but for life. Things that happen to you are events. It's what you do with them that determine whether they're going to be problems or solutions. This is the kind of thing that I hope to develop more in my life and spread. And it's not something for just musicians, it's something that everyone can spread.
JM: I'm on your side. We've got to encourage responsibility. We're all in it together. We need each other desperately. Now more than ever.

HERBIE'S EQUIPMENT: Steinway &Sons 9 foot Hamburg Concert Grand. Apple Computers (various). KorgT1, O1/Wfd. Wavestation A/D, M1Roland MK-80, D550, JD990. E-mu Proteus 1, 2, and 3. Studio Electronics SE-1 and Midi mini-moog. Ensoniq ASR-10, DP-4. Rane SM-82 Mixers (2). Aquila Systems MR2 Midi wireless system. New England Digital (NED) Synclavier 3200. Waveframe Audioframe. Aleses ADATS (3). Yamaha VL-1, NS-10m's, Pro Mixer O2R. Opticode Studio 5's (2) StudioVision Pro. Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Midi Time Piece, Digital Performer. Lexicon PCM70, 480L. Meyers HD-1's. Euphonix CS-2000 mixing console. Silicon Graphics (SGI)-Indy. Bag End ELF Monitor System. Shure Microphones (various). Steinberg Joens Cubase. Emagic Logic Audio. Bryston Amps & Crossover. Hampton & White Control Room. Sprint Drums T-1 line.

JOHN'S GEAR: Abraham Wechter acoustic guitar equipped with a Fishman Hexaphonic transducer capable of providing a separate output signal for each of the guitar's six strings. Those signals are sent to his Photon Guitar synthesizer (made by Phitech). MIDI connections are forwarded to two book-sized Yamaha TX- 7 synthesizers. The signal from a Fishman Piezo transducer used to pick up the guitar's acoustic sound is sent through a TC digital 31-band equalizer and BBS DPR 901 dynamic equalizer. In addition, John McLaughlin uses two Lexicon reverbs (PCM 70 and LXP 1) and a Neumann KM 85 microphone with a Klark Teknik DN 360, 31 band equalizer. He plays D'Addario strings.