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Herbie Hancock: After 54 albums, still making beautiful music

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Herbie Hancock goes global
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 2008 Herbie Hancock won the Grammy for "Album of the Year" for "River: The Joni Letters"
  • He recently released his 54th album, "The Imagine Project"
  • On album, he collaborates with Pink, John Legend, Indie.Arie, Seal and Dave Matthews
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North Hollywood, California -- Herbie Hancock has forgotten his glasses at home in Beverly Hills, and is waiting for his publicist to bring them to his rehearsal studio. "I had surgery and I don't really need them," he confides. "But nobody recognizes me without them."

The legendary jazz pianist was wearing his trademark spectacles when he stepped up to the podium at the 2008 Grammys to collect his "Album of the Year" trophy for "River: The Joni Letters" -- his homage to Joni Mitchell. But even then, things went awry. "I lost my speech. It fell out of my pocket. And then Quincy Jones reached down, and he grabbed it, and tried to slip it back under my coat." He cracks up at the memory.

Hancock turned 70 in April, and he's taking his birthday celebration on the road through the end of the summer. Thursday, he'll headline a concert at Carnegie Hall, playing fan favorites, as well as selections from his 54th album, "The Imagine Project." The disc includes collaborations with such pop stars as Pink, John Legend, Indie.Arie, Seal and Dave Matthews. Well-known world artists like sitarist Anoushka Shankar and Brazilian singer Ceu give an international twist to classic songs by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Peter Gabriel.

"Seven different languages are on here, because I started thinking, 'Okay, if I'm going to make a global record, it has to be about honoring cultures outside of our own," says Hancock.

The Chicago-born musician was able to immerse himself in local musical flavor by recording "The Imagine Project" in India, Ireland, England, Brazil and the United States. "This record right here is really about peace through global collaboration," he says. "It's time to stop complaining and start acting."

CNN caught up with the 12-time Grammy winner as he rehearsed new songs for his summer tour.

CNN: This is called "The Imagine Project." What does that mean to you?

Herbie Hancock: It means a lot of things. There's hope attached to that. There's adventure attached to it. Creativity.

CNN: Of course, all the songs are Herbie-ized. They don't sound the way the originals sound.

Hancock: You know why? They already have the originals. You can play them on your CD player. If I didn't do something special in some way, then why should I do it in the first place?

CNN: How did it feel to win the Grammy for "Album of the Year" at age 68?

Hancock: At the time that my name was called, I wasn't actually thinking about my age at the time! As a matter of fact, when [presenter] Quincy Jones said my name, it didn't even register. I didn't hear it because I was so dumbfounded and shocked.

CNN: Who did you think was going to win?

Hancock: Well, conventional thinking is that it would've been Kanye West, you know -- or Amy Winehouse.

CNN: Kanye probably thought he should have won.

Hancock: (Laughs) Kanye says a lot of things. That's kind of his persona as Kanye. In real life, he's not always like that. He's a nice guy. I hate to say that! Kanye, actually -- he's a nice guy.

CNN: Does his ego get the best of him sometimes? He once told us the reason he overreacts is because deep, down inside, he's insecure.

Hancock: I absolutely believe that.

CNN: Do you think most stars are?

Hancock: I think they are. They really are.

CNN: Do you still have insecurities after all this time?

Hancock: I do, but I think I have a better way of dealing with it.

CNN: What were you most insecure about? About your playing? Your composing?

Hancock: Well, when you get ready to walk out on that stage, and there are people out there who paid their hard-earned money to see you, you want to be able to give them something that they will be happy about having spent their money for. You want to give them something of yourself. Fortunately, I had great teachers like Miles Davis, who said he'd pay us to think outside the box.

CNN: You were one of the first to use the Vocoder (a vocal synthesizer that creates an effect similar to the Auto-Tune used today by artists like T-Pain, Rihanna, and Kanye West), and you got a lot of flack for that back in the day.

Hancock: (Laughs) I'm guessing I was either the second person or the third person, period, to use the Vocoder. I did an album called "Sunlight" (in 1977). It didn't really catch with the public at all, and it kind of died -- but then some years later, all of a sudden, everybody starts using the Vocoder, or Auto-Tune, the new type of Vocoder.

CNN: Don't you think it's a fad that maybe needs to go away?

Hancock: Talking about fitting into a box -- that has become part of the new box to fit into. That's kind of silly. We need to get past that. It's a great effect until it's overused, and then you don't want to hear it anymore. There's always so much more, you know. Let's keep looking to create much more.