Nirvana according to Herbie Hancock

By David Hadju
Updated March 08, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Like game cards for some Hipster Edition of Mad Libs, the song lists on jazz CDs recombine the same tunes album after album, artist after artist. ”Body and Soul,” ”I Can’t Get Started,” ”Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” — the jazz repertoire can seem as narrow and frozen in time as the canon of symphonies in classical music. And Herbie Hancock is pretty tired of it.

Defying the conventions of jazz classicism, Hancock has just finished an instrumental project that’s something of a companion piece to Cassandra Wilson’s vocal album, New Moon Daughter. Entitled The New Standard, it features a small group of jazz’s most agile genre-jumpers, including guitarist John Scofield and drummer Jack DeJohnette, performing songs by the likes of Kurt Cobain (”All Apologies”), Peter Gabriel (”Mercy Street”), Stevie Wonder (”You’ve Got It Bad Girl”), and Prince (”Thieves in the Temple”).

”I realized something people now forget. That is, what we call standards now started out as pop songs of their day,” says the 55-year-old pianist, who made his first splash playing with Miles Davis in the early ’60s before achieving fame on his own as one of the most eclectic musical adventurists of his generation. ”So I said to myself, ‘Why not try treating tunes written by the pop songwriters of today like we used to treat tunes written by pop songwriters then?”’

Well, since he’s asking, a couple of potential problems spring to mind. For one: Pop and rock music employ a more limited harmonic vocabulary than jazz. Is there enough raw musical material there to support improvisation? ”Not really,” admits Hancock. ”The pop songs of today are, frankly, just not as rich as those older tunes, which were written by people like Jerome Kern and Duke Ellington, after all. So I said to myself, ‘What if I reconstructed these new tunes and made them sound as if they were originally written as jazz tunes?’ I reharmonized things, changed rhythms, made modulations, added chords.” In other words, the songs have been rewritten? ”Yeah.”

Okay. Then there’s the marketplace problem: Since the worlds of jazz and contemporary rock and pop are so exclusive, will this sort of transplanting experiment be embraced by record buyers in either genre? ”The album certainly runs the risk of being perceived as a crass, commercial kind of thing — a big sellout,” says Hancock. ”I think pop fans might go for it, because they know the song titles. And I think jazz people might accept it once they hear it, because the songs aren’t really what they might expect. Hey — most of the music has been rewritten.”