The Day Herbie Hancock Met the Electric Piano

The Day Herbie Hancock Met the Electric Piano

Herbie Hancock

SourceIan Dickson/Redferns/Getty

Why you should care

Because it’s always important to try new things. 

On the third and final day of recording Miles Davis’ transitional album Miles in the Sky, Herbie Hancock walked into Columbia Studio B on East 52nd Street in New York to find his instrument missing. A piano prodigy since age 11, Hancock scanned the room — no keyboards. Confused, he turned to Davis, his mentor and band leader. “What do you want me to play?”

Davis nodded at a squat, almost frail-looking set of keys that were a far cry from the commanding presence of a Steinway — instead, they belonged to a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Hancock thought, “You want me to play that toy?” But he’d been working with Davis since May 1963, almost five years to the day prior to the Miles in the Sky sessions, May 15–17, 1968. He trusted the man. And he’d heard other pianists talk about the Rhodes as a different instrument entirely from a standard piano. In fact, in the decades to come, that toy came to form an integral part of Hancock’s pioneering blend of jazz, electro, funk and classical music.

It was the experimental jazz band leader Sun Ra who first used the electric piano, in 1954. Davis became aware of the instrument’s potential for jazz compositions when Josef Zawinul played the Wurlitzer in 1966 for the Cannonball Adderley Quartet. Previously, the Wurlitzer’s soulful electronic sustain was favored by gospel musicians, and later by R&B titans like Ray Charles.

In spite of his wild experimentation, Hancock at his core has remained a jazz musician throughout his career.

Back in Studio B, Hancock tentatively approached the Fender Rhodes and played a chord. “Much to my surprise, I liked the sound,” he said later in an interview with Dutch music writer Paul Tingen. “It sounded beautiful, with a really warm, bell-like sound.”

The first track Hancock laid down on the Rhodes was “Stuff,” the opening tune on Miles in the Sky. The song begins with a snare and a bass line and quickly introduces Hancock on the Rhodes. The clear sustain of the electric piano is the most distinctive sound within the first minutes of the 16:58 track. Hancock’s notes quickly tiptoe around the steady beat of the bass, conjuring the image of a dance between old and new jazz, until Davis’ razor-sharp horn playing takes over.

Hancock’s apparent mastery of the Rhodes’ potential on “Stuff” speaks volumes to his inherent talent as a musician. As Bob Gluck notes in his biopic of Hancock, You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band: “The shift from an acoustic to an electric instrument is actually quite substantial, aesthetically, conceptually and in performance technique.”

Though Hancock had played the Wurlitzer electric piano on previous occasions, the Rhodes was a new, state-of-the art-instrument. Hancock’s almost immediate understanding of it could also be attributed to his lifelong love of technology, having studied electrical engineering at Grinnell College in Iowa in 1956 before deciding to focus on music and signing with the Blue Note record label five years later. His experience with the Rhodes on Miles in the Sky marked the beginning of the artist’s fascinating interweaving of his two loves: music and technology.

According to New York jazz journalist Allan Ripp, Hancock’s initial experience with the Fender Rhodes inspired him to go completely digital on his next recording, Filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded just a few weeks later. “That was the first album in which he did not play acoustic at all,” says Ripp, “which helped accelerate a transition to the fusion style that would soon become so prominent in jazz.”

One year after Miles in the Sky, Hancock left Davis’ group to focus on his solo work. In 1969, he formed a sextet that quickly became one of the most innovative jazz ensembles of the era. This move marked Hancock’s career-spanning exploration of musical gadgetry, as he added the sounds of Patrick Gleeson’s synthesizer to his fuzz-wah electric piano and clavinet. This was arguably Hancock’s most experimental period, as he and his band produced complex, avante-garde grooves that provided the perfect soundtrack for the height of the Space Age.

Throughout the following decades, Hancock established himself as a true musical chameleon, mastering funk in the ’70s with his critically acclaimed album Head Hunters (1973) before moving on to disco, then scratch with his MTV hit “Rockit” (1983). He even played with electronic-jazz fusion with Future 2 Future (2001).

In spite of his wild experimentation, Hancock at his core has remained a jazz musician throughout his career, never fully turning his back on the genre. Instead, he expanded and revolutionized jazz, a feat that was recognized in 2013 when he received a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor.

Even when genius is inherent, it sometimes takes a spark to release its full potential. Arguably, Hancock’s initial experience with the Fender Rhodes in 1968 was that spark. Years later, Hancock said of that day in Studio B: “I learned a big lesson … don’t come to a conclusion on something based on someone else’s opinion. Form your own.”

Herbert Jeffrey “Herbie” Hancock

  • Nickname: Chameleon
  • Vitals: Born April 12, 1940, in Chicago
  • Instrument: Piano, electric piano, synthesizers, organ, keytar, vocoder
  • Standards: “Watermelon Man” (1962), “Cantaloupe Island” (1976), “Rockit” (1983)
  • Quirks: In spite of funky, avant-garde adventures, a classically trained pianist whose work draws from such giants as Claude Debussy.
  • Another take: Herbie Hancock: Possibiities, directed by Doug Biro and Jon Fine (2006)

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