Herbie Hancock, coming to Clearwater, talks about working with Kendrick Lamar and his big Grammy upset

The legendary jazz-funk keyboardist and composer plays Ruth Eckerd Hall on Feb. 15.
Published February 12
Updated February 12

It was a DJ named Flying Lotus who first turned Herbie Hancock on to Kendrick Lamar.

“He sent me a text, and he said, ‘Get To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s an important record,’ Hancock, the legendary jazz and funk keyboardist and composer, said by phone recently from his home theater in Los Angeles.

“The first few riffs of it, I was kind of turned off by some of the language, but then I said, wait a minute. I have to get past the curse words and the N-words if I really want to hear what’s going on. I realized I was the one putting up that barrier. If I want to hear what they’re doing, listen to what they’re doing. As soon as I did that, I clearly heard what it really was about. It’s a great record, musically, and it tells the truth.”

High praise coming from a guy who played with Miles Davis. But it makes sense — there are direct threads linking Hancock’s boundary-pushing creative spirit and Lamar’s culture-shaking rap albums. For example: Saxophonist Terrace Martin, a producer on To Pimp a Butterfly, will be part of Hancock’s band when he plays Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday.

From Martin to Lamar, Kamasi Washington to Robert Glasper, this decade has seen the rise of a new generation of artists influenced by Hancock, 78. Maybe that’s not a coincidence — it was, after all, 11 years ago that Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters pulled off one of the most shocking Album of the Year Grammy upsets in history.

“I read some negative press that said, why are they giving Album of the Year to someone that’s been around this long? Why don’t they give it to Amy Winehouse, who’s much younger?” he said. “I thought I made a really good record, regardless of my age. You don’t necessarily go out to pasture unless you decide not to be creative. And I think my record actually held up. It didn’t sound like anybody else’s record. It didn’t sound like anything that other artists could easily do. And I thought that record had the possibility of encouraging the raising of the bar.”

A decade later, River has aged quite well. Not only does it feature the late Leonard Cohen, but it includes what are still, to date, the last vocal recordings by Joni Mitchell and Tina Turner. But at the time, some of the mainstream blowback to the album’s surprise win stung.

“A lot of times, we can get caught up in our own ego, and we can be blind to some things that we actually need to work on,” he said. “And it’s better to stay open. You don’t have to beat yourself over the head because you get negative press, but sometimes, you can learn something that maybe you overlooked or weren’t aware of. It’s important to have the courage to stand up and own that. And work on making it better.”

Even without River’s Album of the Year win, Hancock’s resume is pretty loaded. He won an Oscar for the soundtrack to 1986’s Round Midnight, composed modern jazz standards like Cantaloupe Island and Watermelon Man, and had an MTV hit with the ‘80s synth-hop instrumental Rockit. In all he’s won 14 Grammys — not far behind the man who replaced him as Davis’ keyboardist, Clearwater resident Chick Corea.

“Chick is a great genius in music,” Hancock said. “Look what he’s done with synthesizers. We were both pioneers in the day of using synthesizers for jazz, and he constantly moves the bar forward. There’s nobody that really plays like him, and what he plays never gets old.

While Hancock’s never visited Corea’s local compound, they remain friends and regular collaborators who connect whenever they can. Over the years they’ve talked a lot about spirituality — Corea is a Scientologist, Hancock a Buddhist — and end up bonding over “humanism, because we both believe in that.”

In the next few months, Hancock expects he’ll start releasing music from a new studio album, his first since 2010’s The Imagine Project. There have been reports it’ll feature none other than Lamar, though Hancock said that talk is premature.

“He came over, and we talked,” he said. “He’s interested. I haven’t presented him with a particular thing that I want him to examine yet. Somebody wrote that he was already on the record, or that he already said he’s definitely going to do it. He didn’t say that. But he said he was very happy about being asked.”

Still, he’s hopeful. His whole career, he’s surrounded himself with genius. And he wants to see where the next generation will take him.

“There’s only one Prince. There’s only one Miles. There’s only one Kendrick Lamar. There’s only one Kamasi Washington,” he said. “They are on various levels of their own development. And so they need to be encouraged to continue.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

Herbie Hancock

8 p.m. Friday. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. $53.75 and up. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com.