Jazz legend Herbie Hancock is no stranger to change. In his nearly half-century career, Hancock has witnessed firsthand the transformation of the music industry. With every twist and turn, Hancock has found a way to explore new genres -- jazz, funk, R&B, even hip-hop -- and transcend the boundaries of musical thought, all the while retaining his unique personal sound.
"Sixty years I've been playing the piano," said Hancock, in an interview with ABC News. "I started off with classical music, and I got into jazz when I was about 14 years old. And I've been playing jazz ever since. But I've expanded [my interests] beyond the specifics of a narrow jazz viewpoint into a much broader one. I like the idea of an eclectic approach, incorporating jazz with other forms and other genres of music."
Not surprisingly, Hancock's latest endeavor, "River: The Joni Letters," for which he collaborated with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, is no different.
"When the suggestion was made that I might consider doing music of Joni Mitchell, I thought it was a fantastic idea," said Hancock. "Joni, I admire not only for her music but for her person, because she's a person that really stands out for what she believes in."
Since its release last September, "River" has emerged as one of the most celebrated albums of the year. Accompanied by renowned saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and newcomer guitarist Lionel Loueke, "River" features stunning vocal performances by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, Leonard Cohen and Mitchell.
"I always try to find the best people that I can find," said Hancock. "The musicians are without parallel."
In keeping with his ability to continually reinvent himself, Hancock approached "River" in a completely new way, focusing primarily on the meaning of the lyrics rather than the beat, melody or harmony of the music.
"The lyrics [were] the engine that drives the music," he said. "I went so far as to give lyrics to each member of the band before we recorded each of the tracks. And we sat in the engineer's booth and discussed the lyrics and discussed the location and what the lyrics are about. We discussed the characters that are in the scene, and we even talked about characters that were not written about. … It never occurred to me to go beyond the words and try to depict the scene in general and characters that weren't written about."
For his efforts, Hancock received three Grammy nods, one of which was album of the year. With 10 Grammys under his belt, Hancock was stunned and honored by his new album's inclusion in the award's top category.
"Total surprise to me," said Hancock. "I'm a jazz musician; they never have a jazz record nominated for album of the year. Yes, it has happened, but it's been so rare and, in most cases, they've been singers, but not instrumentalists like myself, so it's great to be in a category that's actually going to be televised, rather than one that's going to be a pretelecast. … I'm really moved and touched, and I'm honored to have been put in that position."
Regardless of how "River" fares at this year's Grammy Awards, Hancock's playing days are far from over. He is one of the biggest supporters of new technology and the Internet in the creation and proliferation of contemporary music.
"I'm an early adopter," he said. "I'm one of the people who was a pioneer in encouraging musicians, early in the game, to get interested in technology, and now all the musicians are getting into it. … Now, what we're faced with is challenging, but it is a great opportunity for musicians to be able to expose their music to the public in brand new ways."
Hancock's best piece of advice for aspiring, and veteran, artists is to embrace the changes coming their way and, as he has done for decades, find a way to make it their own.
"One of the biggest things is to be open to change and not just wait for change, but be a part of it," he said. "You really have to use your own creative thinking, not just creativity in music but creativity for the development of your career and your life. If you can do that and keep your eyes and ears open, and figure out for yourself new ways of drawing attention to your material, then you may be leading the path that others will follow."