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A conversation with Herbie Hancock

When jazz pianist Herbie Hancock used to ponder the future of music technology, he dreamt of a special box. It would possess multiple slots, each containing a different synthesizer, and he could use it to rotate between different kinds of sounds during a single performance.

Decades later, Hancock, who today plays with a platoon of iPads and small devices strapped to his electric instruments, is getting ready for another type of box. The “Leap Motion 3D Controller,” a small box that uses a wireless connection, will allow him to change sounds with a wave of his hands.

“It is pretty wild,” said Hancock, chuckling, during a phone interview.

The 73-year-old has experimented with electronic music and technology ever since he tried out the synthesizer in the early 1970s. At the time, he had become a renowned acoustic pianist, playing alongside legendary musician Miles Davis and composing jazz standards like “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island.”

Other musicians had told him to stay away from the synthesizer and Hancock said he listened to their advice — until the day that he decided to give it a whirl.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. I like this ... I can turn it up and be as loud as a drummer,’” said Hancock. “I learned a huge lesson: never to form my opinion until (I) actually experience it myself.”

From that point on, he was a self-proclaimed pioneer in music technology, encouraging other artists to purchase computers and push the envelope. He’s often equipped with two Apple computers and four or five iPads whenever he plays.

It’s been 51 years since Hancock’s first album but the musician is still touring. He hit up North American cities earlier this fall with three other musicians and is now preparing to begin a set of November shows in Asia.

Hancock is all about flexibility. He loves being able to play whatever he wants with whomever he wants — a primary reason why he hasn’t stuck with one group of musicians for a long stretch of time.

“I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “The reason I’m working with these guys now (is that) they seem to have no boundaries and are amazing no matter what direction we go in.”

Both on the phone and then later on stage at the Fine Arts Center in Amherst, Hancock didn’t want to stop talking about his three fellow musicians: guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

“Their sense of music is exquisite,” said Hancock, “and they’re all very intuitive musicians. Sometimes I feel like they can read each other’s minds.”

And at least one shares his interest in music-driven computer software.

Loueke, a native of the western African country of Benin, is featured on a new mobile app about music from his homeland. Hancock raved about “GuitAfrica,” which offers a unique way to learn African style guitar — through musical scores, liner notes, audio recordings and more.

Still, despite all of Hancock’s love for innovation and collaboration, there is “nothing that can replace the acoustic piano.” He especially prefers playing instruments made by Italian manufacturing company Fazioli Pianoforti.

“They make the finest pianos in the world,” he said. “Their tone is rich (and) they feel great.”

Hancock is instructing future jazz musicians now, too. He began teaching courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, this year. In early 2014, he’ll teach six one-hour courses at Harvard University.

It’s been three years since Hancock’s latest album but the musician said he’ll back in the recording studio this spring. His last three albums have featured duets with popular musicians. His 2007 album “River: The Joni Letters,” a tribute to Joni Mitchell, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

— CHRIS SHORES

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The world’s stage

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One thousand, five hundred people rose to their feet inside the University of Massachusetts’ Fine Arts Center’s main concert hall — clapping their hands, cheering and calling for more music — and just as some began to scamper toward the exits, the explosive sound of a synthesizer drove them back to their seats. Herbie Hancock’s quartet had returned to the … 0

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