The Imagine Project
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2010, Volume 17, #8
Written by John Metzger
Mon August 23, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
It is human nature to revisit successes and try to capitalize upon them. The trick, especially when it comes to art, is to discover ways of making recycled ideas sound fresh. In the wake of his surprising victory at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, it is perfectly understandable that on Herbie Hancock’s latest set The Imagine Project, he has returned to the same basic formula that allowed his star-studded effort River: The Joni Letters to snatch the prize for Album of the Year.
Based solely upon its first two tracks — covers of Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up and the John Lennon-penned tune that gives the collection its title — The Imagine Project sounds exactly like most cynics expected it would. Featuring appearances by Pink and John Legend on the former tune and by India.Arie, Jeff Beck, Pink, and Seal on the latter one, The Imagine Project appears to have been designed to appeal to the widest audience imaginable. Like most endeavors of this sort, the arrangements aren’t challenging and the vocals — in this case, particularly those by Pink — push the songs too far toward the middle-of-the-road fare that dominates the R&B and pop charts. The result is that Hancock’s creativity is considerably stifled. Yet, this is precisely the kind of stuff that frequently garners an abundance of Grammy nominations.
Fortunately, several songs later, The Imagine Project gets back on track. Although it remains tethered to the conceptual approach that Hancock took to crafting River: The Joni Letters, he ultimately dissolves his formula and rebuilds it from scratch by fusing his exploratory nature to an array of worldly constructs: K’Naan, Los Lobos, and Tinariwen help him to conjure a mesmerizing groove by fusing the latter group’s Tamatant Tilay to Bob Marley’s Exodus. Elsewhere, The Chieftains and Lisa Hannigan revel with Hancock in the fractured chords and rhythms they collectively apply to Bob Dylan’s The Times, They Are A-Changin’, while Anoushka Shankar, Chaka Khan, and Wayne Shorter collaborate with him on a meditative rendition of The Song Goes On. This globetrotting strategy is fitting, especially since the message Hancock relays throughout The Imagine Project is of peace, love, and international harmony.
One certainly could build a credible argument that The Imagine Project is even less of a jazz-oriented outing than River: The Joni Letters. Not surprisingly, this is The Imagine Project’s biggest flaw. Essentially, it sometimes is frustrating to listen as Hancock’s piano playing slips into the background, turning him into a mere session man. Still, Hancock manages to salvage a number of the tracks by surfacing whenever the songs begin to drift. In doing so, the reasons for his choices become understandable and forgivable.
While it’s true that The Imagine Project is tempered by its weakest moments, its strengths succeed in trumping its missteps. Scattered throughout the endeavor, Hancock repeatedly produces familiar touchstones — Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s spiritualized romp through the Joe Cocker hit Space Captain, James Morrison’s credible cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, and Dave Matthews’ eerie rendition of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows — revealing Hancock’s grand plan for the endeavor. Essentially, he wanted to lure newcomers to the table and then push them to embrace a series of musical textures that are more challenging than they ordinarily might experience. If this helps to foster renewed interest in the jazz scene, Hancock’s pop-leaning diversions will have been a small price to pay. ˝
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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