One afternoon in 1977 Herbie Hancock drove to Chick Corea’s house in Los Angeles. As Hancock recounts in in his autobiography Possibilities, the plan was to see what (if anything) happened when the pair – at the pinnacle of their generation’s jazz pianists – duetted on two grand pianos. After an overly polite start their hands were soon flying across the keys in response to each other, and half way through the second song they had their answer, stopped playing and turned their attention to formulating repertoire.
A world tour and two albums followed, after which Hancock and Corea resumed their myriad separate projects. Their careers had been intertwined since 1962, when Hancock replaced Corea in the band of Cuban conga player Mongo Santamaria. Six years later Corea replaced Hancock in Miles Davis’s stellar group, and thereafter both were in the forefront of the fusion revolution, Corea blending jazz with rock and Hancock with funk.
But they never lost their love of acoustic jazz, and have now resurrected the duo. When asked if they still manage to surprise each other Hancock shoots back, “Every night,” before modestly adding: “He surprises me every night, I tell you that!”
The pair draw on their own compositions and standards, and throw in a nightly free improvisation. Hancock says that it is not so much specific compositions that suit the two-piano format as the arrangements. More than any instrument the piano can saturate the sound picture, so leaving space for each other in the musical conversation is crucial.
“We not only listen to each other, and are open to feeling the spirit of other person,” he says, “but we’re open to feeling the spirit of as much as we can in that particular environment. So that includes the people in the audience. We’re hoping to feel their vibe… We’re not trying to isolate ourselves from the audience, even when we’re playing the strangest stuff. We’re not trying to exclude anyone, and yet we’re not trying to pander to anyone.”
Having been an acoustic jazz innovator in the 1960s, a pioneer of jazz-funk and electronic music and a composer of film scores, Hancock has enjoyed an extraordinarily varied career. Asked if there are any periods he looks back on with especial fondness he replies that often it may be an event offering a longer-term lesson, such as when he first encountered a Fender Rhodes electric piano at a Miles Davis recording session:
“I looked around for a piano, and I didn’t see one, and I asked Miles, ‘What do you want me to play?’, and he pointed to the corner of the room and said [Hancock does a perfect, husky imitation], ‘Play that.’ My inner response was ‘What does he want me to play that toy for?’ I had never even heard one before. I was voicing a conclusion that I’d drawn from opinions by other people, but never having formed my own opinion from personal experience. So I actually learned a lesson that day, because when I turned it on and played the first chord on it, I liked the sound… What I learned from that was to never form an opinion based on other people’s experience – unless it’s something that’s harmful and dangerous!”
Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock: Sydney, Concert Hall, June 1.