Herbie Hancock: “The Imagine Project”

Sure, Herbie Hancock is one of the world’s most famous jazz musicians– but he’s found some of his greatest success, both artistically and commercially, through his salacious flirtations with pop music. For many fans, his warm, cartoony music from Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert series remains some of his most spirited and enduring work, while “Watermelon Man”– arguably his biggest, most famous song– happens to be a crossover hit, owing as much to funk and rock as to conventional jazz. And of course, there was The Joni Letters, an album that crossed the threshold into pop more audaciously than any other he’s made, both in its reworking of Joni Mitchell songs and in its star-studded roster of familiar pop vocalists. Naturally, it won a Grammy for Album of the Year.

Hancock follows that record with The Imagine Project, an album that is more star-studded, more pop-oriented, and more Grammy-bait accessible than the one that came before it. The roster is bloated into a guest list that includes everyone from Pink to John Legend, from Seal to Dave Matthews. The songs come from the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Peter Gabriel. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s the concept: As its title indicates, The Imagine Project isn’t a casual album or a mere collection of songs but a very deliberate, thematically rigid affair that’s designed to be a major statement; recorded over an extended stretch of times in studios around the world, the record is Hancock’s manifesto of pop music’s ability to bridge cultural divides and bring people together, a tribute to the power of Song to unite and to overcome differences.

A record like this could, in theory, be pretty awesome; Hancock brought grace and regality to his Joni album, and long before that he spent years kicking around with Miles Davis, whose late-period work hinted at a pop-embracing direction like this one. Moreover, he’s got the chops to bring sophistication to the land of pop, and a dash of much-needed frivolity to jazz. But this isn’t the way to do it: Far from frivolous, The Imagine Project is an overburdened and overthought album that frequently suppresses the myriad talents on display under the weight of the auteur’s own hubris and undoubtedly good intentions.

The Joni album and his wonderful Gershwin’s World showed that Hancock could bring a deft touch to conceptually-heavy albums like this one, but here his touch is anything but light: The album opens with its statement of purpose, a reworking of the John Lennon song that gives the album its name, played here as a big, “We are the World”-style anthem of unity with a slowed-down, melodramatic opening and unbearably overwrought vocals from Pink and Seal; it eventually mutates into a generically “ethnic” beat that India.Arie can’t quite redeem with her comparatively understated vocal. Lennon’s poetry is transformed into a touchy-feely, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along weeper that threatens to topple the album under its own gravitas just one song into its hour-plus run time, and things only ease up a little in the next song, a cover of “Don’t Give Up” in which John Legend does a fine impression of Peter Gabriel but Pink once again overdoes it, and the whole thing reeks of self-importance and faux-solemnity.

These songs are, if nothing else, ambitious, but in all the wrong ways: They hammer their message home instead of letting the songs speak for themselves and the music go where it will, and worse, they feel like a studied bid for another Grammy statuette, the Joni Letters formula puffed up with a touch of vaguely inspiring humanism. But what’s really off about them is that many of the songs that follow demonstrate how well this album could have worked if Hancock had made it more about playfulness, allowing different cultures and traditions to interact with each other instead of forcing a cliched message through hammy musical gestures and over-the-top theatrics. The non-English songs are all endearing, probably because they provide a break (for us English-speakers, anyway) from the preachiness of some of the other tracks, but there are other winners as well. Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks unite for a scorching, gospel/blues take on “Space Captain,” a number that’s brimming with natural charm and easy-going soulfulness, things the opening tracks are in desperate need of. Rapper K’Naan riffs on Bob Marley’s “Exodus” over a killer Malian beat, and Lisa Hannigan gives a quirky, personal reading of “The Times They Are A-Changing'” with the Chieftans as her backing band; it deserves to be listed among the great renditions of that song if for no other reason than it actually sounds fresh and new. Hancock anchors the project with his piano, and he is at once a gracious host to his guests and, when called for, a dynamite showman.

But those qualities are to be expected from Herbie Hancock; what’s surprising is how mixed the quality of the songs are, how crass the concept feels, how formulaic the album’s construction can seem. The album is noble in intent and ambitious in its scope, and that– combined with a handful of really excellent tracks– makes it worthy; that one of jazz’s most curious artists, a man who can make pop/jazz fusion sound so natural, ended up with an album that sounds so forced? That’s a little disappointing.

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