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Hand It to Herbie

Houston's jazz-piano cats salute a giant in their field

In jazz, the list of true living legends is not long. But if you ask any fan or critic to rattle off a list, Herbie Hancock would be at or near the top of any of them.

A pianist's pianist, Hancock first gained prominence as a member of Miles Davis's groundbreaking band from the early '60s. He then proceeded to turn the jazz world on its ear by producing some of the funkiest stuff ever heard before or since with his synth-heavy Headhunters band from the '70s. And though it sounds dated today, mainly because it has been copied so much, his scratch-heavy 1983 pop hit "Rockit" gave turntablism a huge boost toward the mainstream and also set the tables for the hip-hop, electronica, break-dancing and synth-pop revolutions to come. That record was one of many that infuriated critics and purists back then, but it didn't really matter, because by then he was Herbie Hancock, and that's how it pretty much sits today. His show this weekend is only the second in Da Camera history to sell out; the first was a Sonny Rollins show. And he could have brought in the crowds even if he didn't have the likes of saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove in his band.

Hargrove was one of bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie's favorite young trumpeters, and Brecker himself could warrant his own article, which easily could have included gushing raves from every jazz sax player in town. But Herbie is so big that we'll give you glowing words on him instead, coming from some of the best jazz pianists in Houston:

Herbie Hancock (right) leads fellow men in black 
Michael Brecker (left) and Roy Hargrove toward new 
directions in music.
Herbie Hancock (right) leads fellow men in black Michael Brecker (left) and Roy Hargrove toward new directions in music.

Andrew Lienhard: "He's my biggest influence. I've been listening to him since I was a teenager, and he's never failed to dazzle me. He's awesome. He changed the way pianists play, that's for sure. Harmonically and rhythmically, when he plays, it's very unpredictable. You never know where he's gonna go with it, and it's always interesting. He opened that up, for piano players to explore more when they play. He really created a new vocabulary for pianists to use in a lot of ways: the way he voices chords, the way he shapes his phrases, the rhythmic stuff he does. He took a lot of chances, and it always paid off. Everyone's a Herbie clone."

Paul English: "He's such a huge influence on everybody. He's obviously a great soloist, great jazz composer and great band leader. But what people don't talk about as much is that he's a tremendous accompanist. In my opinion, he helped revolutionize the jazz rhythm section as an accompanying force. Listen to 'My Funny Valentine' or his 'Maiden Voyage,' and you can hear where new things started happening as far as accompaniment. He was innovative not only with his own individual accompanying but also with what he did with the rhythm section to support soloists and the improvisational development of a piece. That's what I really listened to in Herbie."

Jerry Sanchez: "He is my favorite genius. He's a very adventurous, very experimental and very versatile pianist. He's one of the best jazz comp pianists ever. Check him out with Miles Davis. He's the perfect example of space in an accompanying pianist."

Bob Henschen: "I've always pointed to him as one of my favorites, along with Bill Evans. Back in the early '60s with Miles was the most influential time hearing him for me, when he was in his twenties and just playing great. He did things differently than anyone before him in terms of voicing chords and his rhythmic comping. He combined a very modernist, almost abstract construction of lines in his solos with funky stuff, which was a very interesting combination. He always kept his music rooted in the blues, basically, and yet he was a very advanced thinker. When I look at the solos they've transcribed from 1963, they still warrant a considerable amount of study to figure out how he got to that level. He was playing several levels above most piano players, in my opinion, in terms of interpreting 'Autumn Leaves,' or something like that. Just really a modernist, not tied down to the usual way of approaching a tune with two-five-one chords and four-bar phrases and things, he was just really advanced for the early '60s. He really took bebop and his influences to a much more advanced level, and we're still learning from it."

Dave Marcellin: "He's born on the same day as me (April 12)! He's a great bebop player, but he showed that you can stretch out and play other forms like fusion and funky music. He showed the fact that it was okay to play popular music and funk, but yet be a great jazz player. He influenced a lot of young people by showing that you gotta know how to play the real music first, and then you can adapt it to the other forms."

Bobby Lyle: "Herbie definitely changed the landscape, because he was able to bring a multifaceted approach to it. He can do the esoteric thing. He started out as a young man with Miles Davis and got deeper into the harmonies and the bitonal concepts. But then he can also break out funky, and bridge that gap. Since that's kind of my whole approach to jazz piano as well, I really felt a bonding with Herbie. He approaches it like I do, in that any type of music is fair game, and basically what you do is lend your style and personality to it. Herbie does that as well as anybody's ever done it."

Pamela York: "The main thing that stands out to me is his incredible imagination. His touch and his sense of swing are unsurpassed. That gives him the ability to make things sound so fresh. When I listen to his recordings from the '60s, and all throughout his career, they never have that dated sound. Plus, he can find something new to say with every band he plays in. All of that has really inspired me."

Ian Varley:"The types of things that he did, nobody was doing before him. He invented a whole new vocabulary as far as the funk and jazz style of piano playing. Not to mention the tunes he wrote, which were just total rock-solid tunes. Herbie has done more for advancing the state of jazz fusion playing and jazz fusion harmony than anybody. He came out of straight-ahead, and when he started incorporating the funk elements into the jazz playing that he was doing, it was light-years beyond anything that anybody else was doing at the time. And his voice as a player is so distinctive. When you hear Herbie playing on a track, you know immediately that it's Herbie."

Joe LoCascio: "Along with Bill Evans, Herbie has defined the modern school of jazz piano. He is the model that we measure ourselves by. You can hear the influences in Herbie's playing, Bill Evans among them, but also Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. He was able to bear those influences, but define a new direction in his own playing. Of course, the stuff with Miles was groundbreaking, but he was the penultimate sideman in the 1960s on all those great Blue Note sides. And I'm not even crossing over into his contemporary stuff and his genius as a producer and composer. That's another area entirely. I'm just talking pianistically. Like any great innovator, he manages to maintain the integrity of the idiom while defining a new direction."

Herbie Hancock appears Saturday, March 12, at Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. The show is sold out.

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