To mark the release of Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project, his latest CD, the Grammy-winning jazz great is sharing a special treat with his fans on Hulu: a making of documentary that follows Hancock around the world as he collaborates with a dozen musicians, from well-known artists like Seal and Pink to Latin superstar Juanes and Malian singer Oumou Sangare, on a selection of covers that reflect messages of global peace. Below, the musical pioneer tells us a little more about the project. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor
Tell us about The Imagine Project — how did you embark on such an ambitious, world-crossing project?
Herbie Hancock: It was an idea that grew out of something that was kind of bubbling in my head anyway, and a suggestion from my attorney. I was thinking about what would be the purpose of making an album — that’s what I do now; I think about what purpose it would serve, what would I want it to be about, what do I want it to do. My conclusion is usually that I want it to address some issue of today. I was thinking about globalization, and my attorney called me at around that same time and said, “I have an idea for you that I think fits into the way you think, and I think it’s pretty compatible with the Buddhism that you practice. How about taking John Lennon’s song,’ Imagine,’ and using it as a centerpiece or springboard to doing a record about peace?”
And when your attorney comes up with a good idea, you can’t say no, right?
Exactly! That’s right. You know, ideas don’t just have to come from me. Wherever they come from is fine. It really did fit in with everything I’ve been thinking about, so we decided to this Imagine Project, which is about peace through global collaboration.
After spending several weeks, maybe even more than a month, thinking about all of the ramifications of it and the possible connections, just getting the details of what it could mean — I want that firmly established, because that’s a foundation that will give me direction, even before writing music. I decided that the best way to establish global collaboration as a means for peace is to honor various cultures outside of my own. How many ways can I do that? One way, which I thought would be a great idea, is to go to these countries. Maybe not all of them, because I was also thinking about the idea of making it a project that’s conscious of the environment. We still wanted to do that, to pay attention to the carbon footprint that we used for flying. We recorded in six different countries and seven languages are represented, with artists from 11 different countries.
I imagine any artist would drop anything would come to you, but it’s great that you went and experienced their cultures firsthand and let that seep into the music, becoming part of the album.
The thing that really struck me because I get to travel throughout the world as a musician, especially a jazz musician, I’ve noticed that on the charts of several countries — and not just European countries, but Asian countries and various others throughout the world — quite a few of the top 10 records really come from American music, but they’re always in English! Even though they sell globally, they’re not really done with a global perspective. I decided I wanted to do a really global record that’s just that from the onset. That’s when I decided that I would have it in multiple languages. One of the best ways to honor a culture outside of one’s own is through language, showing that you have enough respect and are paying enough attention to the culture that you would bother to have their language represented. I was able to do that on this record.
How did you choose some of the cultures represented in The Imagine Project?
While I was still trying to put together the basic purpose and foundation, it actually was already on my schedule to go to India under the auspices of a partnership between the State Department and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. We were there with Martin Luther King III and several congressmen to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first travel to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent teachings. So it was a historic commemoration of that event. We all felt honored to be part of that and to represent America’s cultural art form, jazz. While we were there, we actually did interact with Indian musicians. Since I knew that was coming up real soon, I thought maybe there would be a day off and we could record the first track in India. We hadn’t discussed songs or anything. But anyway, we finally put that together and Chaka Khan, who was actually going over there as one of the cultural representatives, I asked her if she would be interested in making this recording with me and she agreed to it.
We did this first record in Mumbai, and it’s with Chaka Khan singing in English, of course, and an Indian singer named Chitra singing in Hindi. Anoushka Shankar, who is Ravi Shankar’s daughter and also the half-sister of Norah Jones, is playing sitar. We all did that live in the studio in Mumbai and then later on, Wayne Shorter came on the track with his amazing soprano saxophone work. He had never heard the track before — he just wanted us to put the equipment into record and get his first response from hearing it the first time. And that’s what’s on the record. I couldn’t ask for anything more perfect — it’s amazing. That’s almost unheard of, but he did that.
We continued on and recorded in Paris with some groups from Mali, [including] Oumou Sangare from Bamako. She’s on the “Imagine” track and sings in Bambara, which is one the Malian languages. This is the first track on the record, and intro is Pink and Seal. The two of them and me, just the three of us, played this slow intro. This rhythm starts up and it’s a combination of people with a group Konono No 1 — they’re from the Congo, and they play thumb pianos, large ones so they have a deep tone. It’s kind of the foundation for the rhythm. We have a guitarist named Lionel Loueke who is from Benin, West Africa. He’s been in the country for several years — working with me for about four years now. He’s an amazing guitarist. Anyway, India.Arie is singing on top of this rhythm, she’s singing “Imagine” — not as a ballad; it has a rhythm. It has a nice kind of beat. Then Jeff Beck comes in and plays, too. It’s a combination of people; it just moves from one to another.
We also did “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel’s beautiful tune which he originally recorded with Kate Bush. Pink is doing that as a duet with John Legend. Pink and John Legend — it’s off the hook. It is amazing, the voices are fantastic, the quality of their voices and the way it feels. We also have a track with Dave Matthews and a track with Juanes, who’s a fantastic young Colombian singer — he’s well-known on the Latin circuit. There’s also The Chieftains, who are a traditional Irish group, along with Lisa Hannigan, who is also Irish. She used to sing with Damien Rice, and they were on my record Possibilities. She sings Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks also sing Leon Russell’s “Space Captain,” which Joe Cocker made famous.
There’s a young British singer, James Morrison, singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” There’s an artist from Brazil, Ceu. She’s a young, vibrant singer from Sao Paolo that’s one of the hottest new singers on the scene in Brazil. That’s quite a variety of material on the record.
How did you go about choosing which songs were part of the album?
Actually, that was done with a team of people, primarily Larry Klein, who is the overall producer. He did a lot of research to suggest certain artists and certain songs. We all wanted the songs to have something to do with the idea of peace — not just global peace, but even family peace, or peace within the individual. Because very often, we’re conflicted. We’re in one place, but we want to be someplace else. Or we’re doing one job, but we’d rather be doing another job. There are all sorts of things that happen even on the individual level. I looked back and said, you know these are all inspirational songs, inspirational for the human spirit, the human condition, and the day-to-day obstacles that people have to deal with. Like the song “Don’t Give Up” is the perfect representative of that idea. We had a really great time making the record.
What was the idea behind filming all of this and putting it online?
Well, I learned from my record Possiblities.We shot that one and made a film. That film has shown on Showtime or HBO several times, and it was on HDNet. Especially since we were traveling to several countries this time, it’s a journey of what’s in the people’s heart. It said something that needs to be emphasized and can’t be emphasized too much.
America is an immigrant country. We are all not from this country, for the most part. Our ancestors are from all over the planet. Right now, immigration is an issue. If you want to see an immigrant, all you have to do is look in the mirror. Because we Americans have threads of our beginnings throughout the planet, I was just in various countries that contain those threads. Those are really our people, the Indians, the Brazilians, the Africans, the Europeans… that’s really what the album is all about.