As a jazz scholar and occasional jazz pianist, I have studied pianist Herbie Hancock’s music for years, from his work with Miles Davis to Maiden Voyage (1965) to Head Hunters (1973) to “Rockit” (1983) to his Grammy Award-winning River: The Joni Letters (2007)—all of which barely scratches the surface of Hancock’s decades-long career as one of jazz’s titans. I had long known of Hancock as a genre-crossing, forward-thinking, technologically savvy musician; however, witnessing Hancock in concert in both St. Louis and Atlanta offered a chance to experience why Hancock has been described as such by music critics for decades.
Hancock has a long history of including technology in his music when other jazz musicians refused; he was among the first to perform on synthesizer (at Miles Davis’s demand), and throughout his career, he has continued to incorporate new technologies into his music. Hancock has recently been touring with guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and saxophonist/keyboardist Terrace Martin, and his performances rely significantly on technology; Hancock himself performs on an acoustic piano, at least one synthesizer (though a second is always set up), the vocoder, and keytar. (Martin likewise stands with two synthesizers and performs on the vocoder.) In both concerts I saw, Hancock and his collaborators performed well-known standards such as “Cantaloupe Island,” “Chameleon,” “Actual Proof,” and “Come Running To Me,” alongside new songs like “Secret Source” and “Overture.” In each, Hancock fluently switched between technologies (including the acoustic piano), resulting in fresh takes on decades-old music.
While Hancock frequently crosses the boundaries of musical genres, jazz audiences continue to claim him as their own—even when doing so threatens to upend some of the ways these audiences have traditionally defined jazz. In this essay, I consider some of the tensions between Hancock’s use of technology and the jazz genre. In particular, I explore how Hancock’s recent performances test the relationship between liveness and the performer’s body—a relationship that has shaped listeners’ and critics’ conceptions of jazz for a century. Hancock, a musician whose career began as critics were wringing their hands over jazz’s impending death, has long been a challenging figure in jazz; by remaining so, he has continually reinvented himself, offering a model for the genre’s survival by ignoring some of what critics and audiences consider to be its basic tenets, and encouraging them to conceive of jazz performance in new ways.
While Hancock frequently crosses the boundaries of musical genres, jazz audiences continue to claim him as their own—even when doing so threatens to upend some of the ways these audiences have traditionally defined jazz.
The use of technology in jazz has often been met with controversy, even as early as the first jazz recordings. As ethnomusicologist Gabriel Solis argues, the purpose of jazz recordings has often been to create the impression of “being there” for the audience, by making a recorded performance that sounds like a live performance. In order to construct this sense, some jazz recordings feature fake applause or audience conversations. For example, musicologist Darren Mueller notes that producer George Avakian “used studio production to cultivate a sense of place” on Duke Ellington’s Live at Newport (1956), splicing, cutting, copying, and editing in a crowd of listeners for home audiences. However, if such edits became too noticeable, they could threaten the carefully constructed illusion that the recorded performance had “just happened,” and further, could be labeled as “not jazz.”
According to Solis, the importance of “being there” or of the sense of “liveness” within the jazz genre places emphasis on the performing body. Solis explains that the traditional disembodiment of the Western classical tradition privileges a unified sonic ideal that could be made by anybody and thus is meant to represent a universal art form. Further, Solis juxtaposes the disembodied classical tradition with the embodiment of the jazz tradition: “While the focus on idealized works in the Western classical tradition tends to mystify embodied performance, the focus on live performance in the jazz tradition elevates the corporeality of music, even recorded music that is disembodied.” In other words, whether live or recorded, “liveness” was, and in many ways continues to be, a defining feature of jazz performance. Further, “liveness” is recognizable through the audience’s ability to imagine the performer’s body as the performer plays their instrument—hearing the strum of fingers across strings, the strain of lips buzzing in a mouthpiece, the physicality of pounding at a piano, or the strain of a singer’s vocal chords.
Philosopher Roland Barthes’s “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) first introduced a way of understanding vocal and instrumental performances as embodied, setting forth a new method of appreciating and critiquing multiple musical genres. His essay continues to define an alternative way of understanding musical performance outside the European classical tradition’s ideal of a disembodied, “pure” sound. Barthes’s emphasis on the body challenged typical musical interpretations created by many white critics at the time, which tended to align black music, embodiment, and primitivism in racist stereotypes.
Barthes argued that music, and more specifically the human voice, could be best understood as a “grain”: “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” Though Barthes’s brief analysis only describes European classical singers, he suggests that it could be used in other genres. Simon Frith interprets Barthes’s “grain” into the popular music sphere, explaining that, “We certainly do hear voices as physically produced: we assign them qualities of throatiness or nasality, and, more specifically, we listen by performing, by reproducing (even if only silently, tentatively) those muscular movements for ourselves.” Simply put, “A ‘grained’ voice might, then, simply describe a voice with which, for whatever reasons, we have physical sympathy”—audiences can feel the performer’s body as if they themselves are performing.
The cadence and rhythm of the voice remain, but the tone and pitch can be altered and added to. This is particularly significant given the extensive use of vocoders at Hancock’s St. Louis concert: at several points in the concert, I wondered which musician was soloing … the sounds created did not always line up with the expected instrument or body.
Barthes suggests that the “grain” is likewise a method of understanding instrumental music, arguing that he can describe an instrumentalist’s performance in terms of the “image of the body (the figure).” He describes hearing a pianist’s arm, or the finger-tips, or the pad of the fingers, using as an example the harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska, whose performance he describes as coming from the “inner body” and “not from the petty digital scramble of so many harpsichordists.” One can imagine the grain in Miles Davis’s trumpet, for instance; when he misses a note, audiences just might feel the blip on their own lips, and the interiority of his playing can be felt in the body, just as Davis himself hunches toward the microphone. Or perhaps the audience can feel the gravel of Louis Armstrong’s voice, the airiness of Paul Desmond’s saxophone, or the scratch of Billie Holiday’s later vocal recordings.
The grain of the voice evokes a sense of liveness by resonating across the body (the fingers, the throat, the lips, etc.) of the listener. While the grain is not unique to jazz performance, it does help to explain an important aspect of “being there” in listening to jazz, whether recorded or live. As Miriama Young writes regarding recorded music, “As listeners, we can only ever imagine the artist we hear in a recording. And our imagining is based on clues provided by the grain of the voice.” In other words, without the grain, there is no accompanying imagined body—no physicality that evokes the sense of “being there” that is crucial to jazz performance.
However, Hancock and Martin’s use of the vocoder to manipulate their voices, and the synthesizer, which can obscure the physical touch of the keys, challenges the relationship between the voice and the body, and further, the body and liveness. Of course, Hancock’s recent performances have been live; audiences could actually view the musicians performing. However, his prominent use of synthesizers and vocoders, instruments that obscure physicality and eliminate the grain of the voice, challenges the relationship between liveness and the body—even in live performance.
How could the grain be heard in the synthesizers and vocoders used by Hancock? Both instruments involve some mediation of the body, with the vocoder acting as perhaps the most drastic, in that it processes the human voice into an audio signal that is then transformed into a synthesized sound. The cadence and rhythm of the voice remain, but the tone and pitch can be altered and added to. This is particularly significant given the extensive use of vocoders at Hancock’s St. Louis concert: at several points in the concert, I wondered which musician was soloing; with three musicians on vocoders, two on synthesizers, and a guitarist able to make so many sounds that even Hancock at one point asked Loueke “How many people you got in there?”, the sounds created did not always line up with the expected instrument or body. Wondering where a particular sound was coming from led to an analysis of what the sound was, and further, what performing bodies could make that sound.
This experience begs the question: What happens to the body in technologically-mediated live performances, such as those by Hancock—particularly in performances that continue to be defined as jazz by many audiences?
Hancock offers a theory of performance that he has developed around his extensive use of music technology that highlights the human in jazz performance even as it insists that a human’s expression does not revolve around the performing body. In other words, Hancock does not seem to believe that the relationship between liveness and the body is a meaningful way to understand his music; rather, he highlights the relationship between himself and his audience, and whatever instrument or technology he chooses is simply a tool for that direct expression.
Hancock is clear that “technology is a tool for being able to produce the things that you feel,” as he explained in 2007. In fact, Hancock likens technological instruments such as synthesizers and vocoders to the piano, explaining in 1996 that the “piano has no feeling. A human being has feeling.”
Hancock defended the ability of synthesizers to create expression in a 2012 interview, explaining, “Well it’s still human beings that make the music. The synthesizer doesn’t do anything unless someone plays it or programmed it, so it’s up to the human beings to have the good sense and the talent and the ear…to have the taste to make what comes out of it interesting and good.” Critics have questioned the humanity of Hancock’s technologically inspired music—but Hancock clearly argues that his music retains a direct connection to his own expression. Similarly, in a 1985 interview with Wynton Marsalis, Hancock is asked how he can “get human feeling in automated, computerized music?” Hancock responds, explaining a process that is ultimately similar to the approach an acoustic musician might take: “First we create the music. Afterwards I sit back and listen, and sometimes I discover things that I wasn’t really thinking about when I was doing them. I hear the elements that have warmth. Sometimes it’s a particular synthesizer sound. But it could be how it’s played.”
Hancock is clear that “technology is a tool for being able to produce the things that you feel,” as he explained in 2007. In fact, Hancock likens technological instruments such as synthesizers and vocoders to the piano, explaining in 1996 that the “piano has no feeling. A human being has feeling.” Hancock pushes back against decades of jazz purists, who argue that technological mediation in jazz robs the genre of its soul. (Even the use of the term “live” to describe acoustic, one-take performances highlights the privilege given to non-technologically mediated performances, suggesting that the use of technology is, by contrast, dead.) He ventures further, explaining that his performance goal is to “become so fused with the device when you play it, that it doesn’t sound like the device itself. It sounds more like the life of the person that’s playing…In my case, the piano is my voice.” Here, Hancock seems to liken his playing to a Barthesian conception of musical performance with a signal difference: listeners are not meant to hear Hancock’s body, but his life experiences.
In a 2003 interview, he explains further, “Technology is a tool. And technology, that whole kind of thinking about technology and about knowledge and about information, that really covers the past. The future, really, is about wisdom. Wisdom is a whole other level of thinking.” He continues, describing the important role music and sound play in the emotional response of audiences, before explaining his goal: “What I’m interested in is doing whatever I can do to be a part of the catalyst that is along the path of inspiration to others—to somehow, somehow be part of the inspiration that actually comes from within the human being, you know.” Rather than consider technology as a mediator to live performance, Hancock argues that technology is a tool he uses in live performance to not only “elevate the human spirit,” but to “lead [audiences] toward the path of wisdom emerging from the human being.”
In performing across popular and jazz genres, Hancock likely believed he could best fulfill the musical and spiritual needs of his audience, a goal he explains is the purpose of his performances.
Hancock’s focus on the experience of the audience is not all that different from other jazz musicians; from Dave Brubeck to John Coltrane, jazz musicians of diverse subgenres have stated the importance of the listener’s experience. However, for Hancock, his audience and their interest trumped genre restrictions that would bar commercial interests. Consider a statement made by Wynton Marsalis in a 1985 interview with Hancock, in which he explained that his goal was to elevate his audience: “You can get the newest synthesizers, but that music’ll only go to a certain level.” Marsalis, by then beginning to emerge as a key representative of jazz traditionalists, made clear the perceived connection between technology, popular music, and commercialism. For Marsalis at that time, any move toward popular music—including technology—risked the high art status jazz had attained. But Hancock responded, “I only feel musically fulfilled when I can do both.” In performing across popular and jazz genres, Hancock likely believed he could best fulfill the musical and spiritual needs of his audience, a goal he explains is the purpose of his performances.
Ultimately, Hancock’s emphasis on the audience experience transcends categories of genre (distinctions he once referred to as “compartments that the racists fit things into”), no matter how much his critics and audiences try to understand him from a jazz framework. Hancock explains his position toward popular audiences as early as 1977 in a discussion about his early use of synthesizers: “I had just come to the point where I realized the value of entertainment where before I felt like entertainment was a lot of crap. I felt that all you needed to do was play the music and that should sustain the audience.”
Hancock allows entertainment to have value, something that is evident when he announces with pride that his bassist is the bassist for Saturday Night Live, or that Martin was a producer on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), or when he closes his encore performances by cueing chords for the band by jumping in the air and playing his keytar like a rock musician would an electric guitar. By valuing entertainment, Hancock also offers his own method of keeping jazz relevant, one that considers liveness to be based in the audience and their response, rather than solely in the instruments performed and the bodies that play them.