It’s been four years since Herbie Hancock revealed that he was making an album with some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz and hip-hop, including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Kendrick Lamar. That’s still happening, he vowed recently, ahead of his upcoming four-set, two-night engagement at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club in Portsmouth, N.H.
“We’ve changed the arrangements like three times,” he says with a laugh. “Things change so fast in the 21st century, what sounded good six months ago now sounds a little worn and dated.”
Hancock, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2013, has been showered with awards over a career that has spanned six decades. More so than just about all of his peers, predecessors, and heirs, he’s been committed to stylistic change: His music has skittered from hard bop, Latin jazz, and spiritual exploration to fusion, electro-funk, and acid jazz.
“It’s in my DNA,” says the 82-year-old keyboardist of his restless creativity. “I’ve always been naturally curious, even before I started playing piano. As a kid, I was always trying to examine things, take them apart and figure out how they work.”
Hancock, of course, rose to jazz prominence in large part because of his long association with Miles Davis. In 1963, a year after recording his solo debut for Blue Note Records, he joined bassist Ron Carter and 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams in Davis’s “Second Great Quintet,” with Wayne Shorter taking over the saxophone spot shortly thereafter.
“I had the great fortune to have Miles as my mentor,” Hancock says. “He was the one who told us he paid us to try new things.”
But Hancock was already training in the art of transformation even before joining Davis. He played on several albums in 1961 and ‘62 with the bandleader Donald Byrd, a bop trumpeter who dove into funk and soul in the 1970s.
Speaking on the phone, Hancock lights up when his lone grandchild walks into the room. Dru, a toddler, is the son of Herbie and Gigi Hancock’s daughter, Jessica.
Hancock keeps a couple of toy pianos in his music room, where his grandson likes to plunk away, looking to his grandpa for cues.
“Better piano than the drums,” Hancock jokes.
Having credited his own musical mentors effusively over the years, Hancock has devoted much of his recent time to his own mentoring. He’s the chairman of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz at UCLA; in 2014 he served as the Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard University, delivering six lectures on the theme “The Ethics of Jazz.”
The lectures covered the full range of Herbie, including rule-breaking, embracing new technologies (he’s cut tracks on Fender Rhodes, the ARP Odyssey synthesizer, Moog, Mellotron, and keytar), and “The Wisdom of Miles Davis.” One talk focused on Buddhism’s role in creativity.
This year marks his 50th year as a Buddhist practitioner. He had a vision one unlikely night in 1972 in a Seattle nightclub, he explains, after he and his bandmates arrived with less than two hours of sleep under their belts. The night before, they’d taken advantage of several parties, and Hancock was feeling less than inspired.
So he called a tune that began not with him but bassist Buster Williams. What Williams played that night to kick off the concert was astonishing, Hancock says.
“There was something coming out of him that I’d never heard before. He woke all of us up somehow. We had an amazing set. Some people who came up to us afterward were crying.”
Later, Hancock asked the double bass player what had given him the strength to summon the performance. It was his Buddhist practice, Williams replied. Hancock was skeptical.
“Oh, you don’t have to believe in it,” Williams said. “Belief is something that grows from doing it and seeing that it works.”
As Hancock testifies, Nichiren Buddhism “promotes looking at the world in different ways than most of us look at it,” merging the external world with one’s own individual being.
“You find out how to turn poison into medicine, sorrow into joy,” he says. “Inside is outside.”
Having always identified as a musician, one day while chanting, he thought about his wife.
“And I had an epiphany about who I am,” he recalls. “To her, I’m her husband, not a musician. To my daughter, I’m her father. I’m a friend, I’m an American citizen, I’m an African-American, I’m a citizen of the world.
“The fact is that I’m a human being.” Being a musician, he says, is what he does, not what he is.
At Jimmy’s, Hancock will feature most of his band of the last decade. Drummer Justin Tyson is the newest member. Lately, at festival appearances, the bandleader has been featuring trumpeter Terence Blanchard, whose “opera in jazz,” “Champion,” played at Boston Lyric Opera last month.
It’s been a long time since Hancock performed any club dates of significance, going back, he thinks, to the 1990s at the Blue Note in New York City.
“To be honest, I’m just used to playing concerts,” he said. “I try to do intimacy in concert halls with the content of my playing.”
For two nights, New England jazz fans will get a rare chance to hear one of the music’s true living legends — one who has never stopped keeping up with the times — in an old-school listening room.
At Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club, 135 Congress St., Portsmouth, N.H. June 14-15, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. $150-$295. 888-603-5299, jimmysoncongress.com
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.