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Music

Herbie Hancock: Music's leading maverick turns 75

Both icon and iconoclast, few have diverted the course of popular music quite like Herbie Hancock. The genre-hopping pianist, composer and multiple Grammy Award winner turns 75 on April 12.

According to an old adage in the music industry, you are only as old as you sound. No one embodies that quite as vigorously as Herbie Hancock - born in Chicago in 1940 as the son of a secretary and a government meat inspector.

A prodigious pianist from a young age, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. The feat was all the more astounding in that he was an African American, and it was 1951.

But Hancock wouldn't be content playing the music of the past - it was the future that fascinated him. And in 1963 the future was still Miles Davis, who invited him to join his legendary second quintet - where he stayed until 1968. But not interested in simply being a gun for hire, Hancock set about defining his own solo career with the landmark albums "Empyrean Isles" (1964) and "Maiden Voyage" (1965).

Trans-Generational Sounds

Herbie Hancock at Berlin's A-Trane. Copyright: A-Trane/Marc von Lüpke

Hancock with Berlin jazz musician and promoter Sedal Sardan at Berlin's A-Trane jazz club

Leaving the security of renowned label Blue Note Records in 1969, Hancock signed with Warner Brothers, where he set about reinventing his sound and exploring new musical possibilities.

Heavily influenced by the futuristic sounds of Germany's electronic pioneers Kraftwerk - and driven by a fascination with gadgets and technology going back to childhood - Hancock began to experiment with his own synthesized and futuristic compositions on the albums "Mwandishi" (1971) and "Crossings" (1972). Piqued by the new funk sound of Sly Stone, he then formed The Headhunters in 1973 and began to explore a fusion between jazz and funk. That sound became his trademark.

Then, Herbie Hancock's segue into a radically new genre of music in 1983 shocked the purists and introduced him to a completely new generation - the genre was hip hop. His album of that year - prophetically titled "Future Shock" - proffered the seminal hip hop anthem "Rockit" and won Hancock several awards from a then burgeoning new music television station: MTV.

"One of the greats"

Herbie Hancock. Copyright: KEYSTONE/PHOTOPRESS-ARCHIV/Str

Feel the funk: Herbie Hancock performing with his band in Switzerland in 1974

"For me playing music doesn't require being a virtuoso, that's not important," he told this correspondent back in 2007. "You need some technical skills, but music transcends the instrument. It's not the piano I'm interested in - it's the feeling that can be transmitted from one life to another."

This ultimate belief in the power of song - despite genre demarcations - has ensured Hancock's place as one of the most innovative and influential artists of his generation. Paul McCartney has lauded him as "one of the greats," while Quincy Jones said he lives "outside the box." Winning a total of 14 Grammy Awards, Hancock has recorded more than 40 studio albums. In 2011 he was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of Intercultural Dialogue.

"To make sense of my music you need to make sense of me," he said back in 2007. "I was interested in science before I started playing the piano. So having a bit of a science background and that geek head, I took to synthesizers and technology like a fish taking to water. I wasn't afraid of it, I embraced it. I wasn't afraid of anything, and I'm still not.”

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