Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on May 25th 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
"Since I'm going to be in India, why not do this?" he recalls.
We all have stories that start like that, of course. But this one is Herbie Hancock's, and it's the tale of the kickoff of what became 'The Imagine Project,' an album of truly global proportions spanning five continents and involving artists from dozens of countries and cultures in, well, truly imaginative and arresting combinations.
Lisa Hannigan teams with fellow Irishmen the Chieftains, Malian kora master Toumani Diabate and Benin-born guitarist (and Hancock band regular) Lionel Loueke for Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' in both English and Irish Gaelic. Saharan Tuareg nomad troupe Tinariwen's hard-groove of its own 'Tamatant Tilay' is woven with Bob Marley's smoldering 'Exodus' sung by Los Lobos (in English and Spanish) and Somalia-born/Toronto-based rapper K'Naan. And on the opening John Lennon song that gave the album its name, an intro duet by Pink and Seal is followed by an ever-morphing recreation featuring, among others, India.Arie, Oumou Sangare , Jeff Beck and the raucous clang of Congolese street ensemble Konono No. 1. Among others on the album are Colombian star Juanes , Brazilian singer Céu, blues-rock couple Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Dave Matthews, John Legend and James Morrison.
In Mumbai, with a day off from the official duties, Hancock booked a studio and approached Khan about contributing to 'The Song Goes On,' a piece that Larry Klein – the keyboard titan's producer on the 2008 Grammy Award album of the year 'River: The Joni Letters,' reinterpreting songs by Joni Mitchell – had written from a work by Bohemian Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
"I thought she might be interested because she's so open to music and the joy she has when she has the opportunity to connect with jazz," Hancock says from his Los Angeles home, having recently returned from another Monk Institute jaunt, this one to China. "And I also got an Indian singer named K.S. Chithra. The poem is about music and space, the space between notes. And Larry got it translated into Hindi. So we were able to record Chaka singing in English, Chithra singing in Hindi, with Anoushka Shankar on sitar. Did that track all there. But then months later were able to add as an overdub Wayne Shorter."
The saxophone great, a colleague of Hancock's since their days as young lions in the Blue Note Records jazz universe and in Miles Davis' game-changing '60s ensembles, listened to only the beginning of the track and then started playing a part with remarkable intuition.
"He did it in one take – hadn't even heard the track yet," Hancock says. "He heard the beginning and said, 'OK, let's do it.' Uncanny, his impulse of spontaneity and connection that he possesses."
Herbie Hancock, 'The Song Goes On'
After the Mumbai session, a concept took shape organically.
"We started putting together a wish list of artists we hoped to have participate on this record," Hancock says.
He had some names he wanted to pursue. Klein provided a bunch more. Soon sessions were being arranged all over the world.
"For 'Imagine,' we had Konono No. 1 and Oumou Sangare in the studio at the same time, recorded in Paris," Hancock says. "From Paris we went to London and that's where we put on Jeff Beck. Seal and Pink were together singing the intro – that was done here in Los Angeles."
The "Tamatant Tilay/Exodus" extravaganza started with Tinariwen, Hancock, Klein on bass and Alex Acuna on percussion all together in Paris. Los Lobos' vocals were added in Los Angeles and K'Naan contributed his parts from Japan where he was on tour at the time. For the Tedeschi-Trucks take on "Space Captain" (a Joe Cocker hit from the '70s featuring the signature line "Learning to live together") Hancock went to northern Florida to join the couple and their band at their home studio outside of Jacksonville. For Juanes, performing his own "La Tierra," Hancock went to Miami. For Céu's version of "Tempo De Amor" (a classic written by bossa nova greats Baden Powell and Vinicius Moraes), he went to work with the singer and her band in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Through it all, he says, the thread wasn't simply musical, but a larger take on the state of the world.
"I thought about purpose first," Hancock explains. "Why would I want to do a record? And I decided I wanted to do something that addressed issues of today. As we know, there are plenty of issues for today. But the most pressing issue and one that's kind of the springboard for many of the others is the economic crisis."
With the international banks failing – and bailed out as "too big to fail" – it was for many Americans "the first real taste of globalization," he says.
"That made me think very much about globalization and the fears that a lot of people have of globalization."
But, he stresses, there's a positive side of globalization that he fears could get lost.
"One path toward that globalization is to embrace cultures outside of our own and to welcome cultures outside of our own and respect the people of those cultures."
Naturally, that for him meant music and language, with songs exploring themes fitting a new era of globalism (Sam Cooke's 'A Change is Gonna Come,' sung by Morrison; Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" with Pink and Legend). But it also meant not imposing any one cultural framework on the music.
"So I definitely decided I wanted to make a global record, and in order for it to be truly global it had to be in different languages. And with that whole concept in mind, I felt I'd try to record in as many different countries that are represented on the record as I could."
One place he did not get to himself on this project was Africa. That led to a bit of a problem.
"Toumani Diabate recorded in his own studio in Mali," Hancock says. "No one was able to be there. He did an overdub, but then it didn't work because he had an old computer with an older version of ProTools."
"Interesting thing is my wife was already scheduled to go to Timbuktu for the Festival of the Desert that happens every year. The day she arrived at the festival, Tinariwen had just finished their performance, so she missed that. But she went from Timbuktu back to Bamako, the capital, and she was able to get another copy of the original files from Toumani. And she brought it back to the States and we got it to work.
"It was amazing how many things just kind of happened in synchronicity. The fact that she was already going to be in Mali, of all places she could have gone to. She's been to Africa a lot, but it happened to be Mali. She went there because she and a friend wanted to go to the festival. Same thing as happened with India; I was going there anyway."
One footnote: In all the discussion about the project with Hancock, something that nearly got overlooked was his own playing, a crucial part of the music throughout as he draws on pretty much everything he's done in his vast career, from the inventive jazz piano of his Blue Note times to the African-leaning experiments of his early-'70s Mwandishi venture to the crisp, quasi-New Orleans funk of his mid-'70s Head Hunters band to the lyrical touch of his periodic classical forays. If that's not what people notice, though, he doesn't mind.
"I wasn't trying to make this a record that demonstrates Herbie Hancock's playing," he says, noting that he just turned 70 in April. "I don't need to do that anymore. I'm interested in concepts that have a purpose and it's not about me. It's about the heart that goes into it. About human beings. And more my main concern is somehow making a contribution to creative thinking and thinking outside the box, to find a new perspective that hasn't been explored."