NEAL CONAN, host:
One writer described pianist and composer Herbie Hancock as `the quintessential border crosser.' He's an acknowledged jazz master, of course, but might be even better known for R&B, hip-hop and pop music. He's written movie scores, TV commercials and worked with many of the great musician of our times. "Possibilities," a new CD that arrives in stores today, features collaborations with artists as diverse as Annie Lennox and John Mayer, Paul Simon and Sting. Herbie Hancock has just returned from Japan, where played with Wayne Shorter and Carlos Santana on his Emissaries of Peace Tour, and he joins us now from our bureau in New York.
And, Herbie Hancock, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Pianist and Composer): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: If you have questions for Herbie Hancock about his long career in music, his musical border crossing or any of the other collaborators he's worked with over the years, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, Herbie Hancock, I have to say it sounds like you've been having a good time.
Mr. HANCOCK: (Laughs) Yeah. I've been having a good time, but I've been working really hard. But it was fantastic actually working with all the different kinds of artists from different areas of the pop field, and different ages. Christina Aguilera, by the way, also did a great job--a fantastic job of the song "A Song for You," a Leon Russell song. And she delivered, as well as the other artists, too--they really all delivered dimensions that I'm sure their fan base is not accustomed to hearing from them.
CONAN: Well, let's listen to a little bit of it. We'll go to a song called "Stitched Up," and this is where you can hear sort of one simple guitar phrase eventually evolve--see what it evolves into. And this is your collaboration with John Mayer.
(Soundbite of "Stitched Up")
Mr. JOHN MAYER: (Singing) Exactly how you're here is exactly how it all went down. It was later in the evening that the facts and the figures got turned around. It's true there was a woman. Yes, she did advance my way. And I can't be sure exactly, but I swear I saw her say my name. It was the right time and she was the real thing. I had to walk away, thinking, don't want to be stitched up, out of my mind with you. Strong arm, lagging behind...
CONAN: John Mayer and Herbie Hancock, from the new album "Possibilities." That's--John Mayer is an unusual young man.
Mr. HANCOCK: Yeah. He's very bright. He's a schooled musician. And I was surprised to find out that he's a wonderful rhythm guitar player, and he plays great lead, too.
CONAN: Wonderful rhythm guitar player--you know, it's almost--somehow, that's almost an insult, some players would take it as. You know, if you're not playing lead, what are you doing?
Mr. HANCOCK: (Laughs) Look, it takes a structure to make things happen on a record, and the structure also involves rhythm. It's a very important part o a band, when you have a rhythm guitar player. It depends on the requirements of the music.
Mr. HANCOCK: And the ones that are great are fantastic to have on a record, because they really lay down the groove.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. You think of the role that somebody like a Steve Cropper played with Booker T. & the MGs and all those great Stax/Volt records; a critical component of that band and that whole sound.
Mr. HANCOCK: Absolutely.
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. HANCOCK: And John Mayer, of course--he has that nice kind of smooth voice. Yeah.
CONAN: Yeah. Steve couldn't sing much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HANCOCK: But John was great to work with because we really started with just a fragment of an idea that he had, and he was even surprised that we could put it together in the studio, really in one session--one evening, anyway; one day. And we worked on it and developed the song form, the harmonies and the breaks and all the different elements that are in there, and one thing that surprised me, too, was that John just made up some lyrics on the spot and made up some melody fragments on the spot, and he used some of the ideas in the final vocal when he wrote the final lyrics. So I realized that he must have had some idea of what the subject was going to be right in the beginning.
CONAN: We're talking with jazz great Herbie Hancock about his new album, "Possibilities." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Let's talk with John. John's calling from Providence, Rhode Island.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Mr. Hancock, I'm a big fan and I like music, all different kinds, and I was just curious as to what you're listening to right now. What really gets you going as far as the current music scene?
Mr. HANCOCK: Well, I've been working on this record "Possibilities" now for about a year, and it was just released today. By the way, in Starbucks you're going to find it. I made a partnership with Starbucks, and they're distributing it worldwide. So you go and have a great cup of coffee and relax, and you can listen to my record. If you like it, you can buy it. But I've been totally involved in doing this record and some touring lately, so I haven't had a chance to listen to much outside of things pertaining to this project.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, John.
JOHN: Thank you.
Mr. HANCOCK: One thing I did want to say was that I did get a chance to follow Wayne Shorter, who is a great friend of mine, my best friend, as a matter of fact, and I always love his work. And he's got a great new album out, too.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question, this from Randy Luckey in Scottsdale, Arizona. `Recent jazz performers like Pat Metheny are using sequencing and computers to pad their sound. This seems contrary to the very spirit of jazz. I'm wondering what Mr. Hancock's view is on this trend.'
Mr. HANCOCK: I wonder why he thinks that's contrary to the spirit of jazz. Jazz is open, not closed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And you were a pioneer in the use of, well, all kinds of electronic keyboards.
Mr. HANCOCK: I have had the good fortune to kind of be at the right place at the right time, and, you know, I was interested in science even before I was interested in music. You know, I showed interest in science. I used to take watches apart when I was about five years old and, you know, I tried to take my Lionel electric train apart and then put them back together, you know, and...
CONAN: Well, you studied engineering in school, right?
Mr. HANCOCK: Yeah. I was an engineering major, electrical engineering, for two years at Grinnell College in Iowa. And then I changed my major to music composition, because, really, the handwriting was on the wall. I looked in the mirror one day and I said, `Hey, who you trying to kid?'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HANCOCK: But, you know, I never thought there would be a way to marry my two interests, which were science and music, until synthesizers came along. So I gravitated to that like a fish in water. Same thing with computers, you know. And so this--well, I got my first computer in 1979. It was an Apple II Plus. And so I helped to kind of open the door for musicians and technology.
CONAN: People are going to yell at me if we don't hear more of your music here. This is a song--this is a Bono song, "When Love Comes to Town."
Mr. HANCOCK: Right.
CONAN: It's performed here by two of the younger artists you're working with Joss Stone and Johnny Lang. Let's listen to it.
(Soundbite of "When Love Comes to Town")
Ms. JOSS STONE and Mr. JOHNNY LANG: (Humming)
Mr. LANG: I was there when they crucified my Lord. I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword.
Ms. STONE: I threw the dice when they pierced his side, but I've seen love conquer the great divide.
Mr. LANG and Ms. STONE: (Singing) Baby, when love comes to town...
Ms. STONE: (Singing) Baby, when love...
Mr. LANG: (Singing) I'm gonna catch that train.
Mr. LANG and Ms. STONE: (Singing) When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that train.
CONAN: Another cut from the album "Possibilities." And, Herbie Hancock, one of the great opportunities that you've had at this point in your career, being such a star, is to work with these younger musicians and give them some exposure.
Mr. HANCOCK: Well, I think that Joss Stone is already getting a lot of exposure. I come basically from jazz, and I have a certain fan base. Each of these artists has their own fan base. My hope was to bring--put together this collaboration so that they'd bring what they bring to the table and I bring what I bring to the table, and my feeling was, with this caliber of artists from the popular field, that the end result would be something that's outside the box, you know, outside of the pigeonholes where they're normally placed.
CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck with it. May even go buy a cup of coffee.
Mr. HANCOCK: Fantastic. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Herbie Hancock, pianist and composer, joined us from our bureau in New York. His new collaborative CD is out today. It's called "Possibilities." To hear three full-length tracks from Herbie Hancock's new album, go to our Web site at npr.org. We're going out with one of those very tracks. Here's "Safiatou," from Herbie Hancock's "Possibilities." This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.
(Soundbite of "Safiatou")