PortFolio Weekly
April 29, 2003

The Nature of Curiosity

by Jim Newsom

Upon its release in the fall of 1998, I wrote “Gershwin’s World is a tour de force for Herbie Hancock, transcending genre and label, and ranking among the finest recordings of Hancock’s lengthy career.” The album, released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of composer George Gershwin’s birth, won two Grammy awards.

Hancock’s producer and co-arranger on the recording was Robert Sadin. The two are combining again to present the world premiere of an orchestral version of “Gershwin’s World” with the Virginia Symphony Saturday night at 8:30 pm in Chrysler Hall. It’s a feature event of this year’s Virginia Arts Festival.

Sadin, a classical pianist, conductor, arranger, educator and record producer, has been involved in several projects bringing together the worlds of jazz and classical music, including opera diva Kathleen Battle’s So Many Stars and jazz great Wayne Shorter’s new CD, Alegria. In fact, he sees fusing different musical worlds as a mission, “respecting the integrity of both genres but also starting to intersect and interact the two.”

“One of the things that animates my musical life,” he told me last week from his home in New York, “one area that hasn’t been tremendously excavated by the giants of the past, is the sense of bringing these musics together. I believe that’s an area where we can make a real contribution to today’s musical culture. Almost every jazz musician I know of any caliber expresses an interest in not being pigeonholed into jazz. And I can tell you any time I’ve mentioned to an orchestral musician that we may be doing something with Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, their enthusiasm is just palpable. Breaking new ground is what music is all about.

“The great majority of great musicians have always expressed an interest in expanding their boundaries,” he continues. “That’s the nature of being an interested or curious person. Even from the beginning of the century, Stravinsky and Debussy and Ravel were all interested in jazz.”

Herbie Hancock has long been interested in bringing together disparate musical elements and styles. He was among the first and most successful musicians to fuse jazz, rock, funk and electronics in the early ‘70s with Fat Albert Rotunda, Crossings, and the pop chart crossover sensation, Headhunters. He made a hit with the MTV generation in 1983 with “Rockit,” a minimalist exercise in rhythm and electronics. In the 1990s, he brought contemporary hip-hop rhythms and rap into the mix with Dis is de Drum and Future 2 Future.

But his genre-mixing and wall-tearing-down began with his first recording, Takin’ Off, in 1962, an album that included the soul-jazz classic, “Watermelon Man,” a song that became a Top Ten hit for Mongo Santamaria. And Hancock’s classical roots go back to his childhood in Chicago, where he began studying piano at age seven, and performed with the Chicago Symphony when he was eleven.

Hancock first met Robert Sadin at a Kennedy Center Honors program for which Sadin had written the arrangements. The two hit it off, and talked about doing a project together. With the Gershwin centennial approaching, Hancock was interested in doing a recording exploring the composer’s music, place in the world, and connections with Hancock’s own music. He and Sadin both happened to be in Europe at the same time, and got together for dinner. The dinner stretched into a nine-hour conversation during which the two outlined the concept that would become Gershwin’s World.

“From the original conversation to the record, it’s amazing,” Sadin recalls. “It’s almost exactly the way we described it. Basically what we saw is exactly what we did.”

They decided to expand the palette, rather than just do a rehash of Gershwin songs.

“It was part of the idea that Gershwin was drawing so much on the jazz tradition and the blues tradition that was around him,” he continues. “And it seemed more interesting to place him in the context of those guys. Then we said if we’re going to bring this in, let’s bring Ravel in too and get the whole sense of what formed Gershwin.”

Saturday night’s concert in Chrysler Hall expands the concept even more, encompassing not just Gershwin’s world, but also Herbie Hancock’s world.

“What we were looking to do was use that as a starting point,” Sadin explains. “The program is actually in two halves. The first half is entitled ‘Gershwin’s World,’ and the second half is entitled ‘Maiden Voyage.’ The first half is an elaboration and an investigation of Gershwin’s World, and the second half is an investigation and examination of Herbie’s world. In the same tradition, we’re not going to do just Herbie. We’re going to do Wayne Shorter’s ‘Nefertiti,’ ‘Georgia on My Mind.’

“And we’ll open with Bach. Herbie wanted to do something that had an influence on Gershwin, that had an influence on Herbie. Bach seemed like the place to start.”

Robert Sadin wrote the concert’s orchestrations and will conduct the Symphony. He’ll also join me an hour before the show for an “Insider’s insight” into the program.

In addition to the Virginia Symphony, Herbie Hancock will have a jazz rhythm section with him as well--- highly regarded bassist Scott Colley and young drum phenom Richie Barshay, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.

So, I asked Robert Sadin, what kind of a guy is Herbie Hancock?

He was quick to respond: “In a lifetime of working with a lot of high profile musicians, I have never worked with a more genuinely unassuming, decent, straightforward guy than Herbie Hancock. I feel very strongly that a lot of his ability to span so many musical styles has to do with his ability to span the human experience, and not to set himself apart.

“I don’t know anybody,” he concludes, “who, at the same moment in history right now, has the equal respect of jazz musicians, classical musicians, rap musicians. Who in the world would be an icon in all of those areas?”

copyright © 2003 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.