The Transcendent ‘Project’ Glows

Herbie Hancock continues to reach forward with his newest album “The Imagine Project” as he seeks to capture a world of music on one disc. In a career marked with many successes and constant innovation, this album marks a newer approach as he seeks to encompass the earth.

The album opens with Hancock’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and features P!nk, Seal, Jeff Beck, India.Arie, Konono Nº1 and Oumou Sangaré. It opens tenderly with Hancock showing his jazz chops in a prelude centered around open chords for the first 30 seconds before diving into the melody as P!nk and Seal come in.

The tempo quickens at two minutes as marimbas come in with a gently scintillating rhythm. India.Arie comes in on vocals while Beck’s guitar, Hancock’s piano and Alex Acuña’s percussion provide a solid rhythmic backbone. At 3:45, Oumou Sangaré comes in, singing in the Wassoulou language to round out the distinct African feel of the piece.

Although it might seem that this mixing of different styles of music would create a cacophony of dissonant and irreconcilable sounds, every instrument and voice blends harmoniously while still retaining its integrity. In effect, Hancock creates a musical coexistence where pop is layered on jazz on Caribbean on Wassoulou tribal music, and each element compliments the others instead of jostling for dominance.

The album charges forward, carrying the incredible energy and feel from “Imagine.” Its open, broad vision somehow manages to be just as introspective as it does cosmopolitan. This combination forms Hancock’s genius. He’s taken a compilation of pop songs from the past 40 years, and given them a cohesive world vision even though any individual song doesn’t necessarily compliment the others.

Of all of the stellar arrangements on this album, the standout track is easily Hancock’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” featuring Dave Matthews on vocals. The track keeps almost all of the elements found on the original recording of the song on The Beatles’ album “Revolver” in place. This recording could fit perfectly alongside The Beatles’, but Hancock adds his own subtle touch, seamlessly fusing a whole world of music into one song like nobody else could.

Herbie Hancock began his music career at a young age, studying piano at seven years old. He played the first movement of Mozart’s “Fifth Piano Concerto” when he was eleven with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Hancock then rapidly emerged into the jazz spotlight after joining Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quartet” in May 1963 along with Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. During his time with Davis’ quartet, Hancock distinguished himself by weaving unconventional rhythms along with Carter and Williams and by utilizing unusual harmonic structures such as quartal harmonies.

In the decades since, Hancock’s contributions to music have rippled out from where he started. His influence has extended as he explored more genres of music – funk, fusion, pop and now world. In his career, Hancock has recorded 46 studio albums and has received 12 Grammys (most recently two in 2008 for Best Contemporary Jazz Album and for Album of the Year) and an Oscar in 1986 for Best Original Soundtrack for his work in the film “Round Midnight.”

For “The Imagine Project,” Hancock teams up with many of the biggest names in modern music. While this may seem relatively insignificant, it is truly extraordinary that he was able to take so many distinct personalities and give them cohesive vision.

The album ends with a track titled “The Song Goes On” featuring Chaka Khan, K.S. Chithra, Wayne Shorter and Anoushka Shankar, daughter of famed sitar player Ravi Shankar, who taught George Harrison.

“The Song Goes On” opens with a brief fluttering blast from Shorter’s saxophone and a winding interplay between Shankar’s sitar and Hancock’s piano. The track crescendos until the percussion comes in at 38 seconds. Chaka Khan comes in with vocals at 1:04, “I’m only one, I’m a minimum,” she sings. This track features some of the best improvisational work on the album as each instrument and voice call and respond to each other with sharp jabs of sound held together by the pulsating rhythms of the tablas beating constantly in the background.

In its last minute, “The Imagine Project” ends on one stringy note, fading eternally into the silence left by the sudden stop of the drums and percussion. As that note fades into silence, you can’t help but think of music on a larger scale, far larger than the Top 40 crap we hear every day on the radio, and ponder all the possibilities of the world.