Kennedy Center Honors recipient Herbie Hancock, still seeking the next sounds

His circadian rhythms are still set to jazz hours, so with the regimen of nightly gigging long behind him, Herbie Hancock likes to stay up all night behind a smaller keyboard, buying stuff online.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the bounty of his latest 3 a.m. shopping spree plunks down on his West Hollywood doorstep — a box containing a wireless digital-to-analog converter and a copy of “Pacific Rim” on Blu-ray.

“I’ll have to call Wayne,” he says.

That would be saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Hancock’s best friend and collaborator since 1964, when they began stretching the perimeters of jazz under the mentorship of Miles Davis. Nearly 50 years later, Shorter likes to come over and watch sci-fi movies in Hancock’s 3-D home theater.

The room serves other purposes, too. Hancock spends an hour here each day chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” a practice he’s maintained since discovering Nichiren Buddhism backstage in 1972. On one side of the room, there’s a modest shrine. On the other, a bookcase crammed with honorary degrees. That’s where the 73-year-old will probably stash the medallion he takes home from Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors, where he’ll be feted as one of America’s greatest post-bop jazz pianists and a syncretist whose influence saturates micro-genres he doesn’t even know exist.

The Post's Chris Richards believes that some of the best work by Kennedy Center Honors recipient and musician Herbie Hancock can be found in the "meeting place between the technological and the spiritual." (Tom LeGro and Chris Richards/The Washington Post)

The music happens downstairs. Go past the screening-room-trophy-case-meditation-space. Hang a left. Head down the steps. Past all the gold records. You’ll eventually land in Hancock’s home studio, a windowless sanctum that he’s constantly refurbishing with fresh technology.

He’s still learning to play a rubbery keyboard that enables him to bend pitches with his fingertips (it feels like a corrugated mouse pad). And over there, another new controller allows him to manipulate sound simply by waving his hand through the air.

“The interesting thing is that with all of that mechanical stuff in there, you’re able to play music that can actually touch people,” Hancock says, as if still bewildered by this process. “It’s strange!”

And often wonderful. For more than five decades, Hancock has found magic in the gap between spirituality and technology, persistently searching for new ways to express his humanity through the machines.

Under Davis, he learned everything about empathy and exploration. Under the spell of James Brown and Sly Stone, he went on to probe funk, R&B, pop, disco and hip-hop — irking purist critics who failed to realize he was bringing jazz back to its roots as dance music. As Hancock boldly swerved from style to style, his touch at the keyboard remained focused, eloquent, assertive and alive.

In its essence, his music originates as “an opportunity to interact, communicate and produce sounds and textures unique to the circumstances but meant for the human race as a whole,” writes former Blue Note Records A&R man Bob Belden in the liner notes of a new box set that documents Hancock’s innovative sprint from 1972 to 1988.

And when it comes to reaching the entire human race, Hancock has had success like no other living jazz musician. There are 14 Grammys in his living room to prove it.

Now, when he’s not downstairs in the studio, he’s chipping away at a book of his own — an autobiography, due out next year, that eschews chronology for episodic reflection. “[Life isn’t] just isolated events etched in stone,” Hancock says. “Life is holistic.”

His life started in Chicago in 1940. He was a piano prodigy who excelled at Mozart, loved listening to doo-wop and spent his free time disassembling watches. He enrolled at Grinnell College in Iowa to study electrical engineering, but switched tracks to focus on music and eventually boomeranged back to Chicago’s churning jazz scene, where he become a top-call pianist, scoring gigs with Donald Byrd and a recording contract with Blue Note.

Davis snapped him up in 1963 and pointed him toward electronic keyboards, giving Hancock the opportunity to reconcile his twin infatuations with sound and technology. He began releasing his own albums while playing in one of the most revered jazz combos of all time. Alongside Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams, the quintet learned to play with an anarchic discipline they called “controlled freedom.”

“Miles wanted you to be in the moment,” says Hancock. “Be in the moment and have the courage to explore the unknown in front of the people. It’s like being naked in front of them. There’s a purity there.”

Hancock likes to tell a story about an overseas gig where he cringed after flubbing a note. But Davis didn’t flinch. Instead, the bandleader twisted his melodic phrase to accommodate the young pianist’s misstep. It was a revelation. “You hear [the mistake] as something that happened,” Hancock says. “The focus is on, ‘What can I do to make that work? To make that flourish?’ ”

His dismissal from the quintet in 1968 wasn’t so sweet. Hancock got the bad news while trapped in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room, suffering from food poisoning on his honeymoon. He’d been plotting to break out with his own group for months, but Davis’s decision to shuffle the deck still hurt.

Hancock formed his new sextet with something to prove. Today, he humbly describes his avant-garde Mwandishi Band as “more of an intuitive band with tunes that were designed to encourage that intuition.”

Responsible for three of the most underrated albums in Hancock’s catalogue, the Mwandishi Band meshed acoustic and synthesized sounds, pushing broken funk grooves toward something abstract and sacred. The band’s run also marked Hancock’s introduction to Nichiren Buddhism via bassist Buster Williams, who encouraged the group to chant together after a 1972 gig in Seattle brought audience members to tears.

“Some days, things would really connect on a deep level and other moments were like noise,” Hancock says. “We felt like the more in tune our lives are, the better chance we’d have at those nights where everything connects.”

But as his Mwandishi Band continued its rapid push outward, “something in me was emerging that wasn’t getting satisfied,” Hancock says. “It was an earthiness. . . . I was tired of being untethered.”

His 1973 breakthrough album, “Head Hunters,” featured new players and a hybridized sound centered around stylish funk riffs. Certain jazz critics heard pop-chart pandering and cried foul — allegations that would echo for a decade as Hancock drifted into R&B, disco and hip-hop. Today, Hancock doesn’t appear to have lost a wink of sleep over it. “I have a right to go in whatever direction I want to go in,” he says.

That isn’t artistic defiance — it’s wisdom gleaned from years of spiritual practice.

“Many of our sufferings are in how we misconstrue our relationship between ourselves and the environment,” Hancock says. “So we’re encouraged as Buddhists to live a life of cause instead of a life of effect. You know what that is? That’s a life of freedom. A life of effect is a life of slavery.”

That freedom allowed Hancock to continue his explorations, blurring the popular conception of jazz across the ’70s, right on through 1984, when his now-iconic flirtation with hip-hop, “Rockit,” won a Grammy for best R&B instrumental performance.

Jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer remembers being 12 years old, watching Hancock perform “Rockit” on a keytar during that fateful Grammy night telecast.

“He wasn’t afraid to experiment,” Iyer says. “And he did it with a sort of confidence and soul that I think captured what people understood to be the essence of his music — even if he was dealing with new tools.”

Outside of jazz, Hancock stands as a pioneer of pop music’s Balkanized machine age. His influence has seeped into hip-hop, turntablism, house, techno, drum-and-bass, dubstep and various dialects of electronic dance music that the pianist is quick to confess he’s mostly oblivious to.

“Most electronic musicians, whether they know it or not, they owe a percentage to Herbie,” says Theo Parrish, the legendary house music DJ and producer. “He had his toes in so many things at the same time. . . . But you can always feel that it came from the same person. You can recognize that energy when you hear it.”

Along the way, Hancock failed to connect with those heirs in electronic music, choosing to keep his head in his work instead of checking out what’s new. Now, he’d like to change that.

“I want to work with some young people with young, fresh ideas,” Hancock says. “The model is Miles when he hired me and Tony Williams. I am really late in doing that.”

So he recently reached out to Steven Ellison, a 30-year-old producer who makes gorgeously scrambled electronic music under the name Flying Lotus. Ellison invited him over to his studio. They talked shop, listened to music and jammed.

“It’s been really cool being in the lab with him,” Ellison says. “I got to play him [late hip-hop production pioneer] J. Dilla for the first time and he got to hear his samples, his work being flipped. It kind of blew his mind back. The worlds colliding like that was really special for me. . . . I have so much respect for him and I really want to build.”

Ellison says that he and Hancock have already recorded a few pieces of music that he hopes to release on an upcoming album of “supergroup” collaborations under his Flying Lotus moniker.

“Even with all of my experience, I’m a novice at certain things,” Hancock says of the partnership. “It might trigger something in me. It might give me another vantage point.”

It could put Hancock back on the vanguard — a space he hasn’t occupied for a while. The pianist’s quiet tribute to his friend Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters,” won album of the year at the 2008 Grammy Awards, besting Amy Winehouse and Kanye West. Hancock followed it with 2010’s “Imagine Project,” a globally minded album of duets with the likes of Dave Matthews, Toumani Diabaté, Los Lobos and Pink.

“Every human being has infinite potential, so I wind up saying yes to a lot of things,” Hancock says. “That’s the cool thing about jazz. Its characteristics are already humanistic. It’s sharing, not about competition. It’s about courage. Trust. . . . The courage to explore the unknown.”

So down in his home studio, he continues hatching new devices from their cardboard boxes, stockpiling supplies for the next expedition. He’s no nostalgic. All of the vintage synths and vocoders in Hancock’s arsenal have either been sold off or locked away in storage. The oldest piece of gear in the room?

He presses his index finger to his chest. And then he laughs.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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