Herbie Hancock ended a long and exhausting day of ambassadorial duties with a refreshing return to music. Eight hours of conversation fatigue faded away with mention of Tina Turner's stellar reading of Joni Mitchell's "Edith and The Kingpin" from the pianist's 2008 Mitchell tribute River.
"Oh man, she nailed it, didn't she?" he says, shedding his Buddhist's calm.
It's an exciting respite from answering broad questions about the nature and history of jazz. Hancock has spent weeks giving interviews and planning for the inaugural International Jazz Day (Monday, April 30). The project is his first since becoming an ambassador with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last July. From hereafter, April 30 (or dates close depending on international holidays) will celebrate the music globally.
The festivities called for Hancock to perform in three cities in one day, beginning in the Crescent City alongside Terence Blanchard, Ellis Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Kermit Ruffins and the Treme Brass Band at 7 a.m. in Congo Square. In a similar internationally connected scheme he once used in Japan, Hancock performed "Watermelon Man" with jazz students in Rio De Janeiro, Paris and South Africa via satellite. On International Jazz Day, he concludes with a concert in New York.
"It really is a historic gesture from all of those countries working together, (jazz) being recognized as a true international music," Hancock says. "I looked at the list of countries, and there's some of the obvious ones like Italy, France and Germany. But then New Guinea. Oman is going to have something. The list goes on — Malaysia is going to have some events. These are places I wouldn't expect to have events honoring jazz."
Later in the week, Hancock returns to New Orleans for a set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His current band includes Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and a special guest, the vocorder vocal synthesizer, making a return from 1978's Sunlight.
Particularly in his last three releases — Possibilities, River and Imagine — Hancock has collaborated with vocalists, ranging from Pink to Angelique Kidjo. The vocorder is his means of adding his voice to the set. The modern version is Auto-Tune, but the vocorder essentially sustains pitch for Hancock, manipulating his voice via something he commands far better — dials, switches and keys.
"It was hard work putting that back together, especially for that song. When I recorded it, I did it as overdubs," he says. "We're performing so there's no overdubs, so you have to do it at the same time. I had to figure out the choreography."
Besides more recent compositions, Hancock will pull from his 30-year catalog of songs — beyond classic grooves like "Watermelon Man" to his forays into fusion and dalliances with hip-hop and modern urban music since the 1980s.
Hancock is busy with a host of new challenges, including his UNESCO ambassadorship, his leadership at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and a book chronicling his experiences. It is less an autobiography than a collection of vignettes and lessons learned from his teachers (he mentions Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Buddhism). It also covers the various twists, turns, surprises and experiments in his career, and a re-examination of his life in music.
"When I was a kid, I used to take apart clocks and watches to see how they worked," he says. "I've always been curious, and I like idea territory I haven't explored before, but that's how you learn. For me it's natural — it's how you learn, and that's part of my DNA."