Frank Sinatra did it his way, twice. Carlos Santana did it with spectacular, career-reviving results. Ray Charles did it, in effect, posthumously, with "Genius Loves Company," released after his death last year and a multiple Grammy-winner this year.
All those artists, and plenty more, have recorded duet collections, a strategy born of a marketing reality: Sometimes it takes two to climb the pop charts, especially if one of the musicians involved has been sitting on the sidelines for a while.
Which brings us to jazz titan Herbie Hancock. The keyboardist's new CD, "Possibilities," is, at least in some respects, another stroke of "Genius," sharing the same wide airplay ambitions as the Ray Charles release and a similar marketing plan. (Produced in association with Starbucks, the disc is available at its stores as well as the usual outlets.)
What's more, like the musicians who teamed up with Charles, Hancock's collaborators seem to have been chosen with boomer cafe society in mind. Santana, Paul Simon, Sting and Annie Lennox constitute the cast of pop elders, and such younger, pop-savvy names as John Mayer and Raul Midon help round out the lineup. With the possible exception of the high-pitched pairing of Joss Stone and Jonny Lang, whose rendition of the B.B. King-U2 anthem "When Love Comes to Town" proves more strident than soulful, all the tunes on "Possibilities" do sound like something you'd expect to hear while ordering a mocha grande.
What will the jazz police think of Hancock, a former Miles Davis sideman, collaborating with pop diva Christina Aguilera? Truth is, she turns in a refreshingly restrained version of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." But the dog-eared tune is hardly an interesting choice, and the arrangement seems conventional amid the album's frequently colorful settings. Though intimately cast, the teaming of Irish folk troubadour Damien Rice with singer Lisa Hannigan on the Billie Holiday classic "Don't Explain" doesn't leave much of an impression, either. A more glaring miscue is the lavish, synth-swept orchestration of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You," which envelops the flimsy pop ode. Midon's winning tunefulness and Wonder's harmonica cameo are its saving graces.
The remaining selections offer plenty of rewards, though. Mayer turns in one of his most engaging (and mumble-free) performances when the album opens with the Steely Dan-like "Stitched Up," a track enhanced by Hancock's extended soul-jazz coda. Santana and West African vocalist Angelique Kidjo make for a vibrant combination on the rhythmically enticing "Safiatou," a showcase for Hancock's rippling melodies and percussive attack. Two familiar songs benefit from fresh takes: Simon's "I Do It for Your Love," elegantly recast as a quiet jazz combo meditation, and Sting's "Sister Moon," slyly reconfigured by West African guitarist Lionel Loueke. Lennox, meanwhile, contributes the album's most haunting interpretation with the Paula Cole ballad "Hush, Hush, Hush," a contemporary spiritual inspired by the AIDS scourge.
Finally, ex-Phish guitarist and jazz enthusiast Trey Anastasio turns up on the album's insinuating closer: the first movement from "Gelo Na Montanha," a four-part suite that he composed with Hancock and percussionist Cyro Baptista. It's not hard to imagine this shimmering mood piece triggering a quiet interlude during Hancock's concerts with Headhunters '05, featuring Mayer, Loueke, bassist Marcus Miller, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Kenny Garrett, among others.